For whom does the bell (curve) toll?

by Jerrold Soh | May 22, 2013 | 3219 views

It’s been scientifically proven that guys like curves. By extension, girls do too, because it makes guys like them. But it’s not bodily curves, market demand curves or the curves on the Porsche 911 that we pray to. It’s the bell curve.

Not sure who made this…(claim ownership)
I’m not kidding. People actually prayed to it.

Although it was in some sense a joke. It reveals the extent of control that this little statistical distribution has over our lives. For the uninitiated, the bell curve is something that determines your exam grades. Raw scores are plotted with reference to this curve, and the top percentages of students’ scores fetches an A grade, the next few percentages B, and so on. For those who are curious, you can find out more about the bell curve here.

For obvious reasons we do not know exactly how it works (this article by the NUS Provost is the closest you’ll get), because for the examiners to reveal how the compute your scores would be like for the banks to tell you exactly how they’ve used the money you’re saving with them. You might not be happy that your 74% ends up fetching you the same grade as some else’s 60% But if there’s no statistically significant difference between your score and his, that’s what you’re gonna get.

The bell curve is used because we need to separate the best students from the above average, the above average from the normal. And the way we do things in society, it’s by grades. No employer has the time to see that you’re the top 5%, which is clearly better than someone’s 10%. You’re both just gonna get an A, and be as good as each other. That saves time, that’s economic efficiency.

Wait, doesn’t the bell curve help to separate students’ grades? Well yes, yes it does. It basically says that only the top, say, 25%, of students’ scores will get A, and the rest will get some lower grade, regardless of the actual score they get. So, in a test where 25% of students get 90, getting an 89 is gonna fetch you a B, or even an F, if everyone else gets 89.5.
It’s your fault for not doing well in such an easy test anyway.

For the record, it’s not exactly a bad system. Because it works. People who score higher do deserve higher grades. And in practical applications the percentage cutoffs for each grade are carefully researched and set such that they are fair, and make clear distinctions between each band. So those situations above probably wouldn’t happen in reality. And between you and me, I honestly can’t think of a better way.

So what is the problem? What is wrong when the bell curve decides our fate? When we pray for the odds to be in our favour as if we were going into an arena full of other students who can only survive by killing us?

Aren’t we?
Don’t be fooled by their smiles and approachable outlook. They’re all secretly plotting your death.

The bell curve is something learning is not – a zero sum game. It is a situation whereby when someone scores higher than you and he gains a percentile, you move down a percentile. Someone else’s gain is necessarily your loss. And conversely when someone else loses, you gain.

The bell curve says we can’t all be right at the same time. It says that if you know something, then someone else shouldn’t. Because it makes knowledge seem like a zero sum game.

The bell curve says you don’t have to work hard to score as high as you can. You just need to score better than everyone else. You might do that by studying harder than everyone else, but you could also do that by making sure everyone else studies less than you. It says that if you’re the best, then you’re getting your A and you should be proud that you’ve outdone everyone else. Don’t bother bettering yourself anymore.

But the thing is, just because you’re the best doesn’t mean you’re good.

We never got anywhere by being content with being the best, because great innovations and products simply don’t have anything to compare with. If everyone thought that way, the telephone itself would’ve been merely a more reliable and accurate telegraph. The light bulb would've been a lamp running on liquid uranium.

And the iPhone would’ve been something like this.

They tell us that we shouldn’t be too obsessed with comparing our scores with others. That top scorers should not be identified and we should all focus on being the best that we can be. But the system just does not reward such behavior. Whether we like it or not, our scores will be compared, if not by us, by the very examiners who base our performance on a statistical distribution.

So we become selfish. We don’t share what we know. We hide our knowledge from each other. Students charge peers money to tutor them. Because everything I do to help someone also makes my own life harder, so why should I do it?

And we take this mentality with us into the world. Office politics, fight for promotions, climb over each other’s backs to get into that position that only 25% of executives can get. In a way, the bell curve mirrors the corporate world and it does its function of preparing us for that cruel, dog eat dog world out there.

Or does it itself create that kind of selfish society we live in?

Sharing knowledge with others is not wrong, because them knowing something does not make me any less intelligent. What is wrong is the selfishness we are condoning and teaching to the next generation. It might be a necessary evil, but it’s also evil that’s making it necessary.

The bell curve is here to stay, because employers need it. But maybe, just maybe, we can all succeed, together.

Or maybe I’m just the bottom 25% who is ‘less right’ than everyone else.

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