It’s more widespread than you think.

I first heard of it with respect to GPAs, of course. How 3.5 meant poor, 3.7 was average and 3.9-4.1 was good. Grades and GPAs lower than that were used rarely, if ever. The range had been compressed to nearly 1/8th of what it was supposed to be. Maybe it is something in humans that doesn’t like small numbers, so they gradually use bigger numbers to mean the same things that smaller numbers previously meant. It hurts less somehow.

Something similar is true in women’s dress sizes, but in the opposite direction, so to speak. The same numbers gradually comes to mean a bigger size, because women feel better about wearing a size 12 rather than a size 14, “feeling better” presumably leads to more shopping, and the clothing industry is too smart not to use this.

Another strange place where I’ve come across grade inflation recently is the rating on climbs in outdoor rock climbing areas. I was on a climb in Joshua Tree National Park recently, called Eye, that had been rated a paltry 5.3. To give some context, indoor climbing gyms don’t even have climbs below 5.6 usually. As it turned out, the climb was no cakewalk, it was just that the rating was from many decades ago. I can just imagine a climbing grandfather saying, “In my time 5.3 still meant something.” This is a systematic discrepancy between older ratings and newer ones.

And finally, we come to concert applause. Is it just me or have standing ovations become more and more common over time? Audiences are ready and willing to stand for every concert they go to, and give multiple bows to the performer as a matter of course. While this is great for the artists, it makes me worry that there is no headroom left — when the truly mind-blowing performance comes along, how will the audience show it? With handstands, cartwheels and backflips, in that order? Or, more worryingly still, have audiences forgotten how to distinguish the great from the good?

On a more serious note, this article from Reader’s Digest highlights a related problem. Kids today are raised to expect praise and superlatives constantly, and the article questions whether this is beneficial in the long run.

The overall issue seems to be that “good” is no longer good enough for most people. The desire to believe that everything is at or near the best that it can be has taken over. The only reason not to get (more) worked up about this is perhaps the confidence that what is in fact truly great will still rise above the rest and be recognized as such.

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