Our world continues to grow in population, with many different ways to categorize and group ideas, things, and people. There is an easy way for us to grasp these large amounts of things through the simple math of an average. It’s easy to comprehend the idea that the average height for a male in the US is 5’10”. It’s easy to wrap our minds around the number 55 degrees, the average temperature in Richmond Virginia.
But how do you average race and ethnicity? How do you average personality and emotions? The truth is that the math of taking an average of a group can be an easy way to try to understand a group, but it does a very poor job of representing the whole group. Just as an example: There are ten people in a room. Five are 7 feet tall, and five are 5 feet tall. The average height of the people in the room is 6 feet tall, but there is no one in the room who is actually that height.
This misrepresentation can be misleading in statistics and in the way that we understand large groups of data. When we think about the average temperature for a day, it might be 55 degrees, but at noon it could have been 80 and felt very different than what 55 feels like.
When we group people into an average we take away the individualness that creates that average. There is no average male or female in the world. There is no average way of thinking in the world. There is no average race or culture or gender or religion in the world. Because each individual person that makes up the “average” is completely unique.
When we look at a group of people and think about an average, we do a disservice by erasing away all the unsimilarities. The quirks and different things about each one of us, is what makes life so interesting. I might be as close to the average as possible, but there is no way that anyone in the world is the exact same as me.
99% Invisible, a podcast about design, did an amazing piece on this topic, and if you want to listen and hear more about this phenomenon click here. They go into the details of how and why we started using averages to make products easier to mass produce. The first example of using averages for people goes back to the Civil War when Lincoln used averages to create the “Small” “Medium” and “Large” sizes we are so used to today in clothing. Before this revolution in using statistics for the masses, military uniforms were custom fit.
Averages do a great job at helping us get an idea of a large group and generalizing them so that we can wrap our minds around those big numbers. But despite what advertisers and corporations want us to believe, you are not average. The shirt you bought that was a average size might fit you, but it was not a custom fit for you. Because there is only one of you, and the average of society does not even come close to representing who you are.