Friday, October 19, 2012

The 20-60-20 Rule of Human Behavior


When I was a kid, I remember reading somewhere an article about the ‘Talented Tenth.’  This was a theory that said basically ten percent of the population was responsible for most of society’s progress while the remaining 90% was sort of ‘along for the ride.’  I have to admit that my observations as I matured didn’t do much to contradict that belief; that is, until I started looking more closely at how people behave.

After five decades of watching people in societies around the globe, under all kinds of circumstances from almost idyllic peaceful circumstances to the stench and bloodshed of war, I have come to the conclusion that the ‘Talented Tenth’ theory missed it by a bit.  My observations, admittedly anecdotal rather than scientific, have led me to believe that people in groups tend to fall into a Gaussian distribution (so called for German mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss, who popularized its use to analyze astronomical data), otherwise known as a Bell Curve or normal distribution because of its graphic shape.  Basically, in a normal distribution, the highest point in the curve, or the top of the bell, represents the most probable event or situation, with all possible occurrences equally distributed around it, creating a downward-sloping line on each side of the peak.

So, how have I observed people to sort themselves out in the normal distribution?  Like I said, it’s not empirical data, but it seems to work out to a ratio of 20-60-20.  That is, 20% on what I call the ‘good’ or ‘productive’ side, 20% on the ‘bad’ or ‘dysfunctional’ side, and the remaining 60% evenly distributed in the main or central part of the bell.  I guess you could say we 60% are the ballast that keeps society on a somewhat even keel.

Now, on the ‘good’ side, we have the Einsteins, the Michelangelos, the Mother Theresas, and others who come up with the new, bold ideas; who go where no one has gone before.  These are the people who make things happen for the betterment of the whole society.  On the ‘bad’ side, we have the Hitlers, the Jeffrey Daumers, and the idiots who change lanes on the beltway without signaling, cutting in front of cars so close they cause them to stamp on their brakes, creating massive traffic snarls and sometimes causing fatal accidents.  These are the people who take guns to school and use classmates and teachers for target practice before turning the guns on themselves.

While the ‘good’ side of the bell is busy trying to help society progress, the ‘bad’ side is constantly trying to pull it down.  You might think that leaves those of us in the middle 60% at the mercy of geniuses and madmen; but, you’d be wrong.  Like the ballast in a ship, we serve to keep things from going too far in one direction or another.  The geniuses are often so deep in their vision of the future, they fail to solidly ground themselves in the present.  We dullards of the so-so 60% keep them grounded in reality.  At the same time, our outrage when the ‘bad-siders’ go too far helps to keep society from descending into total chaos.

As far as I know, no one has seriously studied this phenomenon.  If they have, I’d be interested in seeing the results, just to see how far I am off the mark.  But, I think that if one day this is ever studied, my theory will be somewhere in the neighborhood of the reality.  After all, under the rules of normal distribution, it should be somewhere near the middle of the bell.