Lumps in the mattress

28 02 2012

You have probably heard the fable of the princess and the pea. Tasked to identify whether a certain girl was in fact a genuine lost princess, the wise retainer gave her a bed consisting of many soft mattresses, under the lower-most of which a hard dried pea was placed. When the putative princess complained of having tossed and turned all night, trumpets blared and crowds cheered: no ordinary person could be so sensitive; the lost princess is found.

Actually, it turns out that us ordinary people are acutely sensitive; not sensitive, necessarily, to minor discomforts of the kind experienced by the lost princess, but far more sensitive than we realise to things that don’t quite fit. Malcolm Gladwell gives numerous examples in Blink, including the art-history experts who experience a visceral unease when faced with an absolutely convincing (to their professional, logical, conscious mind) Graeco-Roman sculpture. How did they know it was “wrong”? (And yes, it had been cooked up in someone’s garage). They don’t know; it just is wrong.

Thinking about personality, we probably wouldn’t have too much trouble accepting that any extreme character trait an individual has might “stick out” a little. It turns out, though, that most of us can sense when even an average (for the population) score on a particular trait is “wrong” (for our overall perception of that individual).

To return momentarily to mattresses: imagine a mattress which, when originally purchased, had a constant thickness of 8 inches. After much wear and tear, the ends of the mattress are still 8 inches high, but the middle sags to just 7 inches thick; all except for one spring in the middle of the mattress which has collapsed a little, but still holds out around the 7 1/2 inch mark. So where is the lump in this mattress?

The average height of the mattress overall is  7 1/2 inches, and yet it is the point that is precisely average which gives us a sleepless night. The average point sticks out when all around it has sagged further.

People aren’t exactly mattresses, so how does this apply? Three times this last week I have seen Birkman Profiles for clients, where the stand-out score was actually one very close to the mid-point on a scale (which in these cases, happened to be very close to the population norms for those scales as well). Two of them actually had exactly the same score, a mid-range score on verbal dominance (assertiveness). For one of them, it was a strangely elevated score; how could someone so very “low key” and focussed on detail in every other way, suddenly rise up to become so assertive? For the other person the exact same score actually represented a strangely depressed score (numerically speaking; they themselves weren’t depressed); for someone so extroverted and competitive, how could they possibly be so measured in the way they expressed themselves? The first person was perceived by others as “a little scary at times”; the second as too often unaccountably “holding back”. Same score, same behaviour, so why such different perceptions of them by others?

It is the rest of the mattress you have to consider.

(With enormous thanks to Steve Shepley, who was the first person to point out this phenomenon to me)