We’re All Above Average, Aren’t We?

What do American drivers, the children of Lake Wobegon, and termites have in common?

They are all above average.

Here’s what a regular reader called LLP pointed out in an e-mail:

There is a TV ad running here in Southern California for a pest control company. It states that “the average termite eats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” so your million dollar home is at risk.

This got me thinking that the idea of average is on the upper limit — which does not make sense since no termite can exceed the maximum time alloted in a day or a week.

I wonder how many more misleading ads are being foisted on unsuspecting or “unthinking” people who simply listen to such blabber.

One other example, LLP points out, is a new car’s mileage per gallon of gas — “which does not take into consideration driving conditions, driver’s habits or vehicle’s load.”

Other examples of above-average promises?


Ryan P, it really doesn't have to do with "Average" versus "Mean" or any other term. It has everything to do with confusing "Basic" with "Average."

According to the survey you linked, "'Basic' denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work." It has nothing to do with "Average."

So, 54% of high school seniors test "At or above 'Basic'," meaning the "Average" high school senior that was part of the survey knows more than "Basic" level science... which isn't all that hard to believe... and is still kind of depressing.

If we considered "Basic" level Math to be knowing the answer to 2 + 2, then I suspect 99.9999% (there's always one) of high school seniors would be "at or above 'Basic'" and it would still have nothing to do with what the "Average" high school senior knows.


Actually, if you parse the language, it could be argued that there's a difference between

"the average termite eats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week" as quoted and "a termite eats, on average, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week" which seems to be what the original person thought they said.

As written, what characteristics used to define "averageness" in termites are not stated. Average mass? Average lifespan? Average annual income from non-wage sources?

Of course, the pest control company could have avoided the problem altogether by saying "the typical termite eats...."

Robert Olson

Student evaluations of college professors


>if a series is binary, every non zero point is above average.


But what if all termites do eat every minute of every day? Consider the following: a day is 24 hours long on average. The average of n identical numbers is the original number, so of course this is true despite the fact that we would never need to make such a claim...

Furthermore, the "basic" level for the education test doesn't say anything about its relation to the average student. It is supposed to be skills driven...

Peter Hart

Well, technically it's possible for an average (not mean, but mode, which is also technically an average - just not the one that typically comes to mind) to be the upper bound. Granted, in the case of the termites, it's pretty unlikely that any termite eats all of the time...


well the average does refer to the termite class rather than the no. of hours it eats...but when u say an average joe runs 2 km a day; (at least)in the common sensical, non PhD mathematical world, u mean that someone who is not an average joe runs more than 2 km a day and someone else who is also not an average joe runs less than 2 km a day...because here, to me it seems, the average is defined over the no. of kms one runs in a day...it is the attribute over which u calculate the average that matters.
so an average joe in running would be different than an average joe in eating fries...and that is why i think this particular add is saying something which is wrong.


how do you rate sense of humor?
oh wait, it's family feud... moving on.


When i am walking barefoot in farm country I always think i am just a tad above average height. However, when i put on my heels and walk in the busy streets of NYC, I realized something different, namely, that that three inch boost and being in a mixed crowded space made me realize lots of people are shorter. (probably wealthier than me and more successful in terms of money and paid voactions.) Even the average male between 20-45 (discounting for growing shorter with age) is still within an inch of my barefoot height.

So when I say I'm average height in the general poulation, I guess it's because I don't discount for sex. In reality I am really tall for a female, and in three inch heels, really tall for a human.

For a guy it would work the opposite. If he is average height around 69 inches, he might think he is above average if he works in an office with many women. It's hard to find a growth chart (percentile wise) that isn't sexually divided.


Tom Best

Survey results for how "well" people are doing in life. Economically, etc. If you survey, most people will say they are doing above average. Fewer will say their neighbor is doing above average, but it will still come up more than half are above average. That's actually impossible, so it shows a perception, not reality. Part of that perception comes from the liberal media - which is more negative than reality. So, as a result, most feel they are doing better than what they hear about in the news.

Ryan Phelps



"46 percent of high-school seniors who test below the "basic" level in science"

I would expect 50% to test below average, otherwise it's not average.


Mutual fund managers. Every single one of them promises "above average" or "marketing beating" returns. By definition, impossible - though I don't expect any fund managers to be promising returns that are "nearly average" anytime soon...


Fitness advertisements that specifically say the results shown are not typical. This of course, appeals to the natural part of the brain we use to feed ourselves the BS that we are indeed above average, and should have no problem getting such atypical results. It's those other poor slobs that wallow in underperformance that have to worry about not living up to the atypical results.


My mommy says I'm extra special.


Surveying drivers, the Swedish researcher Ola Svenson found that 80% of respondents rated themselves in the top 30% of all drivers.


Promises or expectations? All advertising relies on over-promised distortion: drink this beer and women will love you, use this skin cream to banish aging.

Irrational expectations are more interesting: surveys of NCAA athletes in the big-time sports like football and basketball find very large numbers expect they'll play in the big league. That is silly, and you know those expectations hurt because the kids should be preparing for a real future . . . and you know the colleges aren't being as truthful as they should when dealing with their athletes.


re: Ryan, Dave, and others on the 46% testing below basic - those NAEP tests are criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, so they aren't applicable to this discussion. Everyone could be above or below Basic levels, because Basic and other levels on NAEP tests are defined in terms of what students can actually do.

Relatedly though, on some state education tests it wasn't unheard of to hear folks get really upset when hearing that half of students weren't performing at grade level - when grade level was defined as the 50% mark. That's why we try to use criterion-referenced tests now.

the Gooch

All the headlines today are proclaiming that houses are all declining rapidly in value, which is apparently scaring the consumer confidence right out of people.
Unfortunately, that measure of home value is the median price of the homes that actually changed hands, not the value of any individual home over time.
With the same cherry-picking of the median transaction, and since more people are buying smaller cars this year than last, one could write the headline "Car Fuel Efficiency Skyrockets Over the Past Year" which misrepresents the truth fairly well.

Dr. booboofinder

Dear Ryan, Dave etc.,

perhaps it seems nice to think that it's about attitude, what your mommy tells you and not what teacher does or does not do to make it possible for students to learn and to make students excited about what they learn. But when you get down to it, my 15 year old is "bored" to tears in high school. What's it gonna be like in college @ 40,000 a year crack- why bother? I have not told this to her yet- she's at an age when and where she wants what her friends want most of the time.But we are in a sorry state when a girl (who came in second (to 3 boys who together came in first) in a science contest at school in the 5th grade is at the point where she cannot stand a subject now that she once was excited about. Get real and stop being so self absorbed. This system is keeping her behind. Dr. Mom the rescue i.e., if it's not too late!


If "the average termite eats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," maybe an "hour" is really some kind of special termite food--which a typical termite will eat 24 of each day. It seems like we should all hire this company to come and protect all of our hours from being eaten!