When Everyone is Above Average


Would you be limiting yourself if you targeted advertising only at those who were above average in whatever characteristic related to your product (say, intelligence, good looks, athletic ability, perserverance, etc.)? In a word, NO. Studies show that across a wide spectrum of measures, almost everyone considers themselves to be above average. In the neuroeconomics book Your Money & Your Brain, author Jason Zweig cites a startling survey result in which two thirds of a group of drivers surveyed rated their skill, ability, and alertness the last time they were behind the wheel. That about two thirds rated themselves as “at least as competent as usual” wouldn’t be surprising had this group of drivers not been surveyed in the hospital after having crashed their cars! Zweig goes on to describe the actual police report data, which showed that two thirds of the group were directly responsible for their accidents, the majority had multiple traffic violations, etc.

Just about every self-measure ends up the same way. I’ve learned that creating employee compensation plans that people think are fair is very difficult, since most employees consider themselves to be above average performers, and the rest rate themselves as average. Thus, anyone with a below average salary (typically half the employee population) will automatically perceive themselves as underpaid versus their peers. And, since people don’t hesitate to rate others as below average, even being paid the same as other employees can create dissatisfaction.

Zweig cites a rule of thumb that for any given measure, about three quarters of subjects surveyed will count themselves as above average – even though, by definition, about half the population should be below average. In fact, if you assume that instead of a rigid 50% dividing line that people probably group themselves in thirds – i.e., a third above average, a third about average, and a third below – the 75% number seems even more delusional. But, that’s normal. Garrison Keillor famously describes the fictional Lake Wobegon as, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” As it turns out, he might be describing the entire nation, at least from a self-reporting standpoint.

Zweig uses this data to set up an explanation of why investors are overly optimistic about their own investing skill and even their past results. In one survey, far more investors reported that they had “beaten the Dow” in the previous year than actually had. (In my own experience, almost everyone I know who has come back from a trip to Las Vegas either won or “broke even.” Makes you wonder how all those casinos stay in business…)

From a neuromarketing standpoint, advertisers should keep this odd brain quirk in mind. A pitch geared to those who are below the median in some way may end up falling on deaf ears because the audience doesn’t identify with that category. Instead, appealing to the above average with the suggestion of further improvement may be more successful. (“Your hair looks good now, but with our new shampoo, it will look incredible!”)

Categories where individuals are more realistic or even pessimistic about how they compare with everyone else may exist. It wouldn’t surprise me if many people thought that their neighbors had, say, more disposable income than they did. And in some categories, like remedies for baldness, appealing directly to the consumer’s concern about comparing poorly to the rest of the population may still be highly effective. By and large, though, advertisers won’t go wrong by overestimating the consumer’s opinion of himself.

1 Comment
  1. James says

    Is there any research in the book about how this may differ between cultures? As an Australian living in the UK I find most British people much less optimistic than Australians or Americans. I know some of the optimism studies by Martin Seligman have found much more pessimistic attitudes in Europe than in the US.

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