In the late 1940s, the US Air Force experienced an epidemic of crashes involving several different types of aircraft. Many of the accidents were attributed to pilot error and, in the course of investigating the causes, Air Force officials re-examined the design of the cockpit itself, which had been based on the average physical dimensions of pilots from 1926. In 1950, the Air Force hired researcher Gilbert Daniels from Harvard to ascertain the degree of fit between pilots and the cockpit dimensions, which he defined as a pilot whose measurements across 10 physical characteristics were within the middle 30 percent of the range.
Gilbert's findings were astonishing – of the 4,063 pilots studied not a single one fell within the average range across all ten dimensions (Rose, 2016, p. 4). This was despite the Air Force already filtering pilot selection according to its own concept of the average, eliminating pilots from consideration who were either too tall or too short. The moral of the story, according to author Todd Rose (2016), is: Any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail (p. 8). This is the counterintuitive conclusion of his book, The End of Average – How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.
The idea of the average has been a fundamental organising principle of the systems that underpinned 20th-century society, from how factories were organised, to how civic policies and social rank operated, to how school systems and curricula were designed. The notion of average was critical to the quest for standardisation. In this context, the understanding of the individual lay not in the recognition of their unique talents and strengths; rather, it was arrived at by comparing them to the average and determining how far below or above the standard they measured (Rose, 2016, p. 37). It is an idea that holds little credibility any longer in the social sciences.