What to Do When Everyone is Above Average

In Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

So says Garrison Keillor, host of A Prairie Home Companion, and creator of the fictional town.

While all of the women in a given location could be strong and all the men could be good looking, the idea of all of the children being above average is an interesting paradox.

It is also the reason behind the name of a psychological phenomenon known as the Lake Wobegon Effect.

What is the Lake Wobegon Effect?

The Lake Wobegon Effect, also known as illusory superiority or self-enhancement bias, is the tendency of people to overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate the negatives.

The most oft-cited example of this is the study that found that 80% of Americans believe that they are in the top 50% of drivers. It’s not quite all of the children being above average, but it’s the same general idea.

A study of Stanford MBA students found that 87% rated themselves in the top half of the class academically while only 10% believed themselves to be below average.

People also believe they are fairer than average, healthier than average, and more popular than average.

Some other examples, taken from the book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, include:

  • 94% of professors say they do above-average work
  • 25% of people believe that their ability to get along with others is in the top 1% of their peers
  • 2% of seniors in high school say they have below average leadership skills.

In short, we are really bad at accurately assessing our output and abilities and often give ourselves far too much credit.

How Can We Avoid It?

Like other cognitive biases that we have explored here, including the IKEA Effect, the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and Confirmation Bias, it all starts with acknowledging the problem. Recognizing that we have this instinct to overestimate our abilities allows us to take a step back and challenge ourselves.

Are we really that good? Or do we still have significant room to improve? This kind of mindset will make it easier for us to recognize areas where others exceed our abilities, which allows us to learn from them.

Everybody is better than us at something. Combating the Lake Wobegon Effect allows us to figure out what that is and learn from that person.

Postscript

I came across some interesting research on this subject while doing my own research. Originally, it was believed that the effect was more pronounced among Westerners than East Asians. The belief was that because Westerners were more individualistic and East Asians were more collectivist, that this difference caused Westerners to puff themselves up more.

More recent research appears to debunk this idea. Instead, the connection now appears to be that the Lake Wobegon Effect is more pronounced in countries with higher income inequality, regardless of how individualistic the society.

I’m curious as to why. I have a few rough ideas, but nothing that seems like a slam dunk. What do you think? Why might people be more likely to overestimate their abilities and contributions in countries where income inequality is higher? Or, why might more equality in income counter the effect?

10 thoughts on “What to Do When Everyone is Above Average”

  1. The driving analogy reminds me of something a friend said to me about Boston drivers. It can be applied equally well across state lines.

    If somebody is driving faster than you, they are an a**hole. If they are driving slower than you, they are an idiot.

    Yeah, like we think ourselves as prefect drivers…..

    Seriously, I think people like to paint a picture that is just rosier. I see it more in the US than the UK. For example, in the UK people tend to be sarcastic, put themselves down in a joking way and look at the worst of things in a realistic kind of way – stiff upper lip and all that. It goes beyond equalities in income and looks different depending on nationality, even within the Western world.
    Mr. PIE recently posted…But What Will You Do? Part 1 – Mrs. PIEMy Profile

    1. The driving analogy is pretty spot on. I would definitely be interested to see statistics on whether self-deprecating humor is linked with a decrease in this bias. It would make sense that people that make fun of themselves are less likely to overestimate their skills.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  2. Interesting post and never thought how it may be different across cultures. I just figured it was human nature to think of ourselves capabilities in a positive light, especially in areas we care about and try to do well in, like driving.

    I think we all need to think a bit more broadly… For example, personally I know I have the best blog ever…, but I do recognize other people also have decent blogs like yourself 🙂
    The Green Swan recently posted…The Green Condor: Clearing Growth HurdlesMy Profile

  3. That’s a really interesting finding, Matt.

    It may be self-preservation where income inequality is stronger…if you are above average in your skills, you can stay on the top side of the divide. If you aren’t, you are dooming yourself. The middle is not so good and the bottom is dreadful. So, better to see yourself as better than average.

    On the other hand, in more egalitarian societies, there’s nothing wrong with being in the middle. Most people are in the middle. Middle is good…so it’s fine to see yourself as average.

    Of course, that begs the question of which comes first…the self-perceptions or the level of egalitarianism in the society.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Why You Need to Steer Clear of the HGTV Trap and How to Avoid Its Siren CallMy Profile

  4. This is sooo interesting, Matt. Thanks for sharing!

    I might also add, when others have lower expectations of us (or look down on us), we may underestimate our abilities. I’ve not researched this – it’s completely anecdotal. Both of my children had the same teacher for three years (4th-6th grade combined classroom). Each of them felt bad about their academic skills, particularly math. When they each moved up to a classroom with a teacher that held the assumption each child was brilliant in their own way, everything changed (for each of them). Each improved exponentially in academics, to the point of testing into advanced placement. I was astounded (and disappointed they didn’t see their potential sooner). (With the first child, maybe a coincidence, but when it happened again with the second…)
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Do you know what you need to accomplish your dreams? Start with knowing your WhyMy Profile

    1. Thanks, Amanda. And sorry that your children ended up in that situation. The effect of getting stuck with a bad teacher for three consecutive years must have be rough on their self-esteem. Glad to hear that they were able to bounce back successfully.

      There are definitely situations that lead people to underestimate their abilities. There was a study done in the late 1990s on Stereotype Susceptibility. They looked at the stereotypes that Asians are better than average at math and that women are worse at math, and brought in groups of Asian women to take a math test. With one group, they specifically tried to remind them of their identity as Asian before the test and with the other they reminded them of their identity as women. The first group actually did better than the second group on the test.

      This is not quite the same situation as your kids, but it does play into the idea that we perform worse when we feel that we are expected to be bad at something.

  5. I feel like each week when I reading your newest articles that I’m sitting for a graduate class. I always learn so much and it always makes me think. Thank you.

    I wish I had a good reason why people overestimate or underestimate. Part of me thinks it’s because people are influenced by the media which skews their own internal views of themselves.

    If the news showed everyone acting like Elon Musk I would think the numbers would decrease in terms of people thinking they were intelligent. Unfortunately the news harps on accidents and unintelligent decisions.

    I think when compared against what they see on TV they probably think they are superior.
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Teaching Kids About MoneyMy Profile

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      Media influence definitely could be a part of it. I’d be interested to see some data or studies on how different cultures are affected differently by media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge