Regression to the Mean

Written by Katie Mitchell, M.A.

For some this has been a great year, and you might be hoping to continue riding that wave into 2019.  For others, this has been a hellacious year, and you might be holding onto the idea that a new year around the corner is representative of a new beginning.  And some, might look back on 2018 with ambivalence or as an “average” year.  With the end of the year nearing and many looking forward to the opportunity for a new beginning, I thought that I would provide you all with some pertinent information about the phenomenon, regression to the mean, also known as "reversion to mediocrity." which sums up how unusual events are likely to be followed by more typical ones.

Unless you are well versed in statistics, you are probably thinking, “What does regression to the mean, even mean?”  Regression to the mean is the statistical concept that says over time, things move toward average.  A great example of regression to the mean is the Sports Illustrated jinx. The jinx poses that whoever appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated is going to have a poor following year.  Erroneously, the “jinx” is seen as the faltering of skill, rather than recognizing that naturally there is regression to the mean.  Most players have good games, and they have bad games.  A winning streak, especially in sports, is usually just that: a lucky streak.  Sometimes a winning streak can lead to being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but it can also lead to performance falling back to average.

Within the field of social psychology, this same principle can also explain why unusual events (good or bad) are likely to be followed with more typical ones.  I can still remember the day that this principle was discussed in my undergraduate social psychology class.  With this lecture, my social psychology professor, Dr. Zorwick, helped reaffirm the idea that the tough experience I was enduring would not last forever, and man, did I need to hear that at the time.  I am sure that if I needed to hear that at the time, there are many out there right now who also need to hear the same thing; especially with a new year on the horizon! 

Whatever you are currently experiencing (again, good or bad) this too shall pass and go towards average or above.  I do not say that with the intention of spoiling your positivity or asking you to prepare for the worst – my point is almost the exact opposite.  I believe that knowing and reminding yourself of regression to the mean, can help to savor the happy moments in life.  If we recognize that something will not last forever and it is pleasing, it could help to be more mindful of that experience, as we are experiencing it.  Likewise, it can also help us through a difficult time by helping us see past the hardship that we are currently experiencing.  In difficult times, do not be fooled by anxiety or common human experience to let the negative become overwhelming.  Take time to remind yourself of regression to the mean, and remind yourself that this too shall pass.

Here’s to hoping this next year is one full of great experiences, but if it proves itself to be more difficult – here is to knowing that there is regression to the mean, and that average or above is around the corner.  Reach out to our office today, if you are looking to cultivate a more significant average or are finding it difficult to remind yourself of regression to the mean as you move through a difficult season/year of life.