HBD: The Basics


In this post I will attempt to salve HBD confusions or at least not sow new ones.

This is one of a series where I discuss issues and elements of what is referred to as HBD. Similar to my Random Thoughts series these posts will be more personal and less scholarly. If you want deeply footnoted reference work, please look elsewhere. Disclaimer aside, I do hope to give a passable overview of the subject.

Please note that I may use average in a looser sense than a strict mathematical definition. Another name for average is expected value; I will tend to use it more as meeting expectations.

You are a special little snowflake

It may shock you cynics, but we really are special snowflakes; no two of us is exactly alike. However, we may be quite similar. Just because we share traits with others does not take away from our individuality.

On average, we are all average

While cynics may dismiss the snowflake claim, snowflakers will be disappointed to hear that we tend towards being average. Take any person at random they will tend to be close to average. On any single measure the may be extreme on most they will be close to the average. They will likely be about average height, about average weight, earn about the average wage, have average abilities, and may even have an average life expectancy. Your random person may be extremely tall (or short), extremely fat (or skinny), and earn an extremely high (or low) wage, but across a majority of measures, he will likely be near the average.

However, non us is perfectly average

While we all tend towards averageness, we do not all do so in the same way. Most us us will be high in some things and low in others. For most even the things we are atypical in may not be that far from average. We may be tall but not remarkably taller than average, we may earn well but not remarkably more than average. We may be short but not remarkably shorter than average, we may not earn much but not remarkably worse than average. Even if we have some unique talent or feature that marks us out, it will likely be the only, or one of a few, extreme measures that we possess.

Half of us are below average

This is not Lake Wobegone, and the sad truth is that on any measure half of the group will be below average. This holds true whatever the measure: wealth, driving skill*, singing skill, drawing skill, writing skill, reading ability, running speed, strength, or anything else that you care to consider. This means there will always be “winners” and “losers.” What holds true for singing and driving holds true for academic pursuits; half of all children will fall below average in reading, writing, or computational skills. In the cosmic sense it is unfair, in the practical sense it is true.
[*Large majorities (75 percent or more) of drivers consider themselves “above average,” obviously many of them are wrong in their self-assessment.]

Not a point, but a tendency

It may be better to consider averages as a tendency rather than a fixed point. When talking about group averages (e.g., average industrial wage) it is better to imagine a dense cloud then a fixed point. Rather than bore you with another picture of a bell curve, I will try another analogy. Imagine a pipe pumping out colored gas, near the source (the center) the cloud is dense and clearly visible, the outer edges would be just thin wisps. The fact that gas is present in those thin wisps does not make us believe that the wisps are the source (center) of the cloud. Just because you can find extreme points, does not mean the average does not exist.

The population and populations

Any study of groups will end up looking at two things: The general population (e.g., All of the United States, all males) and particular sub-groups or populations (United States citizens under 30, White males with a college education). During reading you should be clear about whether it is the general population or the sub groups that is under discussion.

Stereotypes can be true for the group but false for the individual

There is no cognitive dissonance here; just because a woman is six feet tall does not mean that mean that men are not usually taller than women. Because nobody is perfectly average, nobody will perfectly match group expectations but this does not mean you are wrong (or bad) to be surprised when you meet a six foot tall woman, indeed you would be best to plan for that not happening.

Different traits lead to different outcomes

Extraverts are more likely to go into sales, introverts prefer accounting. Few would find that claim shocking and most would agree (hedging with the “stereotype” warning from above). At the level of the individual, we generally seem comfortable with this idea. We feel no particular discomfort positing that certain types will prosper under different conditions. If you have ever worked in an office environment you will probably not have much difficulty in guessing which is the sales team and which are the analysts. In essence you have divided individuals into two groups and noted the different outcomes.

Different does not necessarily mean better (or worse)

Using the example above, which are more important to the company, the sales team or the analysts? Not easy is it? If you don’t sell stuff you go out of business, but if you don’t have the right stuff to sell your sales staff will be useless.

Preference does not equal judgment

You would probably feel more comfortable in one of the two groups above. You would make a preference for one of the two (I am more analysts type than sales type), yet you would not necessarily made a judgment as to which was better. Perhaps it would be truer to say that your “better” meant better (preferred) for you.

Salve or Sow?

While this is far from comprehensive I hope that I have covered, and made clearer, at least some of the things that trip people up when discussing HBD and group differences. If I did not manage any of the “salving” of my opening sentence, I at least hope I did not do any sowing.


One Response to “HBD: The Basics”

  1. Linkage is Good for You: Regrets Edition Says:

    […] Default User – “HBD: What and Why?“, “HBD: My Journey“, “HBD: The Basics” […]

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