A Salute To Median Calm

It is a standard trope of fiction that people often get angry when they suffer life outcomes well below what they see as their justified expectations. Such sore losers are tempted to retaliate against the individuals and institutions they blame for their loss, causing increasing damage until others agree to fix the unfairness.

Most outcomes, like income or fame, are distributed with mean outcomes well above median outcomes. As a result, well over half of everyone gets an outcome below what that they could have reasonably expected. So if this sore loser trope were true, there’d be a whole lot of angry folks causing damage. Maybe even most people would be this angry. Hard to see how civilization could function here. This scenario is often hoped-for by those who seek dramatic revolutions to fix large scale social injustices.

Actually, however, even though most people might plausibly see themselves as unfairly assigned to be losers, few become angry enough to cause much damage. Oh most people will have resentments and complaints, and this may lead on occasion to mild destruction, but most people are mostly peacefully. In the words of the old song, while they may not get what they want, they mostly get what they need.

Not only do most people achieve much less than the average outcomes, they achieve far less than the average outcomes that they see in media and fiction. Furthermore, most people eventually realize that the world is often quite hypocritical about the qualities it rewards. That is, early in life people are told that certain admired types of efforts and qualities are the ones with the best chance to lead to high outcomes. But later people learn that in fact that other less cooperative or fair strategies are often rewarded more. They may thus reasonably conclude that the game was rigged, and that they failed in part because they were fooled for too long.

Given all this, we should be somewhat surprised, and quite grateful, to live in such a calm world. Most people fall below the standard of success set by average outcomes, and far below that set by typical media-visible outcomes. And they learn that their losses are caused in part by winners taking illicit strategies and lying to them about the rewards to admired strategies. Yet contrary to the common fictional trope, this does not induce them to angrily try to burn down our shared house of civilization.

So dear mostly-calm near-median person, I respectfully salute you. Without you and your stoic acceptance, civilization would not be possible. Perhaps I should salute men a bit more, as they are more prone to violent anger, and suffer higher variance and thus higher mean to median outcome ratios. And perhaps the old a bit more too, as they see more of the world’s hypocrisy, and can hope much less for success via big future reversals. But mostly, I salute you all. Humans are indeed amazing creatures.

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  • Males are probably evolutionarily designed to live under higher variance, accept losses more readily, with status and hierarchy differentials. Imagine if they didn’t. The world would burn or civilization wouldn’t get off the ground.

  • davidmanheim

    The trope is about people who receive much less than they expect; I’d intuitively model that as something like standard deviations below the median, not distance from the mean.

    • Do you have any particular reason to think people only compare their situation to the median, not to the average?

      • davidmanheim

        Not only, but mostly. Two related points.

        First, the median seems more cognitively available. I don’t think people intuitively work on the basis of averages in general. This seems to match what the literature says about prestige; it’s an ordinal scale. This also makes sense according to the literature I’m aware of on questions like “would you rather earn $80k in a neighborhood full of people who earn $100k, or $65k where everyone else earns $50k.” The relative standing issue is what people focus on.

        Second, median is easily locally computed; you don’t need access to everyone’s position to know where you stand relative to them, and you need fairly little information to see how much more or less money you make than the people in the middle. To find an average, you need to know a fair amount about the financial details of the outliers.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        People know something about their own standing vs. the population a whole – they know whether they’re rare outliers or not.

        If you know you’re not, you rationally ignore the outliers – their results don’t apply to you.

  • justsomeguy05

    That “stoic acceptance” is exactly what I seem unable to achieve.

    Is that acceptance “giving up” or is it “accepting reality, yet being able to be happy about it”. I know that “suffering is optional”, and that lack of acceptance does not make for a happy life, yet I seem unable to “give in”.

    • Unless you are actively causing damage now, in my terminology you ARE stoically accepting.

      • justsomeguy05

        Very interesting. Thanks. To me externally not acting out, is very different than accepting to the point where there is internal calm. I have no problem with the first level of acceptance, it is the second buddhist-like level that I struggle with.

      • Fleshy506

        One observation I have found helpful to bear in mind, when struggling to accept unpleasant truths, is that accepting something isn’t the same as approving of it. “This is bad/wrong/unfair” and “I can’t change it, so I should just adapt as best I can” are perfectly compatible beliefs to hold about the same thing, but it’s easy to lose sight of that, and I think that’s a key part of the process by which non-acceptance is transmuted into internal suffering. IIRC, I got that particular nugget of wisdom from learning about acceptance and commitment therapy, more specifically the concept of “radical acceptance.”

        I think the world would be a better place if more people lived by that philosophy, but I’m not 100% sure. If enough people can credibly commit to flipping the table (against their individual self-interest) if things get bad enough, that places a limit on how much people in positions of power can profit by squeezing the less fortunate. That sort of dynamic seems to be important in human behavior, judging by experimental evidence with the ultimatum game, and historical cases where governments and businesses have hastily backpedaled from unpopular policy changes that they theoretically had enough leverage to enforce.

        So in addition to saluting those who stoically accept their lot in life, perhaps we should also salute those who would not, as long as their threshold for Not Taking It Anymore is something that would really constitute a worse equilibrium for humanity than the status quo.

      • Felix9

        Given your terminology, “stoically” is, at best, unnecessary and, at worse, misleading in describing some of those who are accepting.

    • Robert Koslover

      No problem. Just go back and read Brave New World again: “… I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta.” Read, rinse, repeat…

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Can you elaborate on “later people learn that in fact that other less cooperative or fair strategies actually tend to be rewarded more”?

    That doesn’t fit with my experience. What do you have in mind?

  • No one could reasonably expect rewards much above median. That would just be playing in to everyone being above average. The enormous entitlement assumed by those who do is egregious.

    • It is nearly a tautology that one can reasonably expect to get the expected outcome.

      • Which isn’t the average.

  • vicccc

    Some of our behavioral biases (e.g. endowment effects, confirmation bias, overconfidence) could help us to accept our fate …

  • AshwinV

    I do suspect that Loss aversion is a big reason why people don’t take enough angry action.