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.
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.
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?