We all have the potential to be extraordinary – we just don’t all get to realise it and end up being pulled back to average over time due to a natural process called ‘regression to the mean’
WITH HARD work and the right opportunities, all of us have the potential to be extraordinary. But in all likelihood we won’t be. Most of us will likely form the average part of the talent bell curve.
But this has little to do with some predestined determinism. Many factors affect success in life, whatever form that may take. Trinity College Clinical psychologist Dr Ian Roberston just published The Winner Effect, a book which examines the traits and psychology of success.
In statistics there is a theory known as “regression to the mean”. Technically speaking, this refers to the phenomenon that if a variable is extraordinary on its first measurement, it will likely be nearer to the average on a second measurement. The extreme tends to lose its edge over time. This applies to humans as well as numbers.
“Because of the complexity of our brains, every human being is unique and has their own special skill sets,” says Robertson. “Everyone can achieve but in terms of hard objective criteria – such as winning a Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal – the chances of becoming a winner, particularly if your parents were winners, are quite low.
This relates to regression to the mean,” he says. “If you choose any outlier – whether it is height or intelligence or sunny days – a second measurement is much more likely to go back to a lower, smaller, medium point. Most points cluster around the mean.”
Mediocrity loves company. But there are biological and psychological forces at play as well as statistical. “Abilities are partly inherited,” says Robertson. “If your parents are tall you will more than likely be above average. But in terms of natural ability, many people suffer from the curse of genetic fatalism.”
This refers to the theory that those who are naturally gifted from an early age can end up under-performing later in life because of an inability to deal with failure and setbacks. “Any threats to the ego can be very damaging.”
If you are the child of successful parents, things can be even more difficult. Parents expect offspring to achieve as well as they do, which can be a burden that is self-defeating.
Mom and Dad can play dirty too. In his book, Robertson refers to a situation known as “Hiding the ladder”.
“With some parents, success can go to their head,” he says. “They don’t want to recognise that luck played a big part.”
Very often, successful businessmen attribute their success to their unique talent. And so they don’t pass on this vital information to their offspring: that people who achieve in life work hard and are persistent.
“When you’re successful, very often your ego gets inflated and you want to believe yourself to be unique,” he says.
“That’s why you should never praise your kids for their brilliance or innate skill but for their hard work and determination. Otherwise you will build a very vulnerable castle in their head. You often see this in adolescents. Kids who do really well in school hit a setback later in life and fall to pieces.”
At the DCU Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI), they are well aware of this. Rather than focusing on traditionally broad IQ scores, the CTYI look at specific abilities among its students and then foster “talent development”.
“We look at intelligence over the life cycle of a person,” explains Dr Colm O’Reilly of the CTYI. “An IQ test at age eight is not an indicator of intelligence at 15 years. Interventions are needed all the time so that gifted children meet their potential.
“Besides, IQ scores are an indicator of potential rather than actual classified achievement. It takes a lot of work to keep students at the above average level, so they’re able to still be operating at what would be above the norm.”
The level of practice needed for accomplished athletes and musicians is huge, he adds. Nobel Prize winners work at a much higher and deeper level. While most of us will be prepared to study for five hours a day, they will be doing it for 10. Proficiency, hard work and determination are needed so that we don’t regress back to the mean.
“We work with kids with high ability who could potentially become Nobel Prize winners but not without motivation, intervention and opportunities to challenge themselves. If we don’t stimulate or work with them, they won’t perform to a level above the mean,” O’Reilly said.
If you were to continuously produce offspring, sometimes you would have strong, healthy and gifted children but the majority would be more representative of your average, explains Dr Brian Hughes of NUI Galway.
It also explains why in sports, so many football transfers are a disappointment and why so many managerial transfers fail also. If you look at an athlete’s performance at one particular point in their career it may not be representative of their ability over the long term.
In fact, many athletes are aware of this, particularly those who have achieved big things but then succumbed to the “curse of Sports Illustrated”. Once someone makes the cover of the popular US sports magazine, their careers often go into decline afterwards.
However, black magic is definitely not at play. “Athletes tend to be Player of the Year by the time they make the cover of Sports Illustrated,” says Hughes.
“This means they’re at the height of their careers. This is very often the best they’ll do in their field, so it follows that the following years might not be as good. Everybody will have some good days and some bad days. But you’re most likely to have an average day.”
THE THEORY OF UNLIKELY EVENTS
IN AN INCREASINGLY connected world, one can’t help being dangerously aware of how disorganised things are. Nations are co-operating more than ever but events such as the recent global economic meltdown demonstrate just how fickle our grasp of order really is. Nature plays its own part in keeping things running smoothly but every now and again things go horribly wrong, usually because of something humans have done.
Is there anyone out there who can try to predict and therefore prevent future catastrophes? Mathematicians are working on it. The Theory of Unlikely Events is a sub-branch of Probability Theory, called large deviation theory. “In many stochastic – or random – systems, highly unusual events occur not as a result of one unlikely happening (which would be the case for winning the lottery), but because many unlikely things happen,” explains NUI Maynooth applied mathematician Ken Duffy.
“One example would be an insurance company going bankrupt: it is not typically the case that one single huge claim exceeds reserves, but rather that many individual policies experience claims in a brief window.”
This type of mathematical probability is most useful in assessing information systems and also risk management. Had Ulster Bank a few good mathematicians on their staff, maybe their recent technical disaster could have been averted. Better still, the whole global economic meltdown was probably forecast by number-crunchers who were a little too far away from the action.
“Large deviation theory characterises the likelihood of these sorts of rare events and identifies how, should they happen, they are likely to occur,” says Duffy. “Indeed, the earliest rigorous results in the field were motivated by that very example about a century ago when the Swedish mathematician Harald Cramer wanted to get improved estimates on the likelihood an insurance company would go bankrupt.
“It’s a sophisticated mathematical theory, used broadly in physics and engineering. In operations research, for example, in understanding, for example, how bad backlogs occur in queuing systems.”