The average is not the majority

In school, I was told the average life expectancy in the “third world” was 35 years.

So naturally I thought most people died at 35 years old.

Years later, I found this wasn’t true.

The biggest cause of death was infant mortality, children dying before age five.

If they grew up, they had every chance of living to 70.

So some died as babies, some died at 70, split the difference and you get 35.

Which is why the average was 35, although most people didn’t die at 35.

We tend to confuse the average with the majority.

But the average doesn’t exist in the real world, it’s just a number on a page.

In 1952, the US Air Force was changing from propeller planes to jets.

Everything happened twice as fast in jets, so a pilot had to react twice as fast.

They began having more and more crashes, 17 in just one day.

They found the pilots couldn’t move fast enough to do the things they needed to do at that speed – the problem was the cockpits.

The cockpits were still designed to fit an average size used in 1926, when aircraft were fabric-covered biplanes.

They needed to see if the average size of a pilot had changed in 30 years.

So they got a young Harvard graduate, Gilbert Daniels, to conduct a survey.

He measured 4,063 pilots across 140 size dimensions.

Then he took the top 10 dimensions and averaged them out: height, shoulders, chest, waist, hips, legs, reach, torso, neck, thigh.

Then he ran the numbers – he expected most pilots to fit into the overall average.

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But he found not one single pilot was average.

Some may be average in one area, but not in others.

Even taking just three dimensions – neck, waist, reach – he found only 3.5% of pilots fitted.

He found there was no such thing as an average pilot.

So now the Air Force had a problem, they couldn’t build a cockpit for the average pilot because no such person existed.

In fact, for the first time, Daniels himself realised that average didn’t exist anywhere.

He said: “It was clear to me that if you wanted to design something for an individual human being, the average was completely useless.”

It might be worth thinking about that when we talk about the “average consumer”.

It might be worth remembering that they don’t exist.

We are marketing and advertising to a fallacy.

How the US Air Force solved the problem was with a motto: BAN THE AVERAGE, DESIGN TO THE EDGES.

But how could they do that, they couldn’t design a cockpit for each individual pilot.

No they couldn’t, but they could let the individual design their own cockpit.

They came up with something we take for granted today – adjustability.

The seat height, the legroom, the seat angle, the controls, were all made adjustable so the individual could get the cockpit to fit perfectly.

Something we take for granted in cars today.

They adjusted the technology to the individual, not vice versa, and of course it worked.

We may want to think of that, instead of just tapping average demographics into an algorithm and spraying average ads at people who fit that average.

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That non-existent average.

Even Einstein knew the average person doesn’t exist.

He said: “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it’s stupid.”

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three


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