Is the Lake Wobegon Effect Undermining Your Potential?

by | Nov 6, 2021

Is the Lake Wobegon Effect Undermining Your Potential?

Student Potential

The Lake Wobegon Effect

When looking in the mirror, what do you see? Are you better looking, more intelligent, funnier, more conscientious and honest than others? Compelling research suggests most of us think so. But the so-called ‘Lake Wobegon’ effect is holding us back.

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”. But we all can’t be above average! Popularly known as the Lake Wobegon effect, we all tend to overrate ourselves.

Aka ‘Better-Than-Average Effect’

Better known in academia as the ‘Better-Than-Average Effect’, BTAE for short, research consistently shows we tend to overestimate our personal qualities, abilities, and attributes compared to other folks.

For instance, a widely cited sample of one million students undertaking the SAT rated themselves 60% above average in athleticism, 70% above average in leadership, and a whopping 85% above average in getting along with others. But this is a statistical anomaly (we’re talking about the median, not the mean).

Of course, you may not be thinking this. You’re not that big-headed. There again, for some, modesty is the trait overestimated!

The effect goes far beyond students

A University of Nebraska survey found that 94% of faculty rated themselves as better teachers than their peers. Having spent a decade teaching in higher education, I do not doubt that this finding would replicate across other universities too! In other words, most of us overestimate our capabilities.

Given this tendency to overestimate our traits, skills and capabilities, for instance, in self-leadership, some dismiss opportunities to improve as they appear irrelevant. “I’m already a self leader”. But don’t be so quick. The data – and there are mountains of it – should give us pause for thought.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what’s going on in Lake Wobegon, let’s first consider why the effect is very likely holding us back.

The need for creative tension

When overrating ourselves, our ‘perceived self’ is positively biased in our favour. And this bias, while helpful, even necessary at times (more on this later), prevents us from finding or seeing opportunities to improve.

As the figure above indicates, when we realise our abilities are not at the level we would like, it can generate a ‘creative tension’ between our actual and ideal selves. And this gap motivates us into action. But if we continually go about our daily lives unrealistically overrating ourselves, then we miss opportunities, left, right and centre, to improve. Instead, a realistic, compassionate assessment and a bias for positive action move us to where we’d like to be.

How robust is the science behind this effect?

Very robust. This biasing effect is hardly isolated. The self-evaluation field, including BTAE, has blossomed. A synthesis of 22 meta-analyses measuring many qualities, from intelligence, vocational abilities to sporting prowess, reveals a sizeable gap (.29 r) between self and objective performance measures.

What’s more, a recent meta-analysis on the BTAE effect alone, involving 124 published articles, 291 independent samples, and more than 950,000 participants, leaves us with little doubt. The BTAE affects us all, and in a big way. It matters little what gender, age, race or culture you belong to – we all do it.

However, positive biases depend on the domain in question.

Firstly, we tend to overrate our personalities more than our abilities. Researchers think this happens as character is abstract and more challenging to assess objectively.

And when it comes to our abilities, it depends on how difficult we perceive the skill. If it’s too hard, we are likely to exhibit the opposite bias – the Worse-Than-Average-Effect. But if it’s relatively easy, we’re far more like to be positively biased.

So there’s no getting around the fact that we humans like to wear rose-tinted glasses, particularly when comparing ourselves to others.

So why do we overrate ourselves, and is it all bad news?

Why do we experience the Lake Wobegon Effect?

1. We want to protect ourselves

Let’s imagine someone has dished out some not so good feedback. It hurts, right?

Research finds that people receiving negative feedback have a greater need to engage in positive bias versus those who receive no feedback.

What’s more, when we receive information that contradicts our sense of self, this triggers the need to find information to close this gap urgently, like rushing to a friend to reassure us.

Seeking reassurance is good when the news comes from someone who doesn’t know better. But sometimes, stepping back and gently reassessing and rectifying the gap is the best thing to do in the long run.

2. Self-enhancement is evolutionally wired in us

According to David McRaney, the author of  You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself, deluding ourselves quite literally keeps us sane.

McRaney posits that our delusional thoughts and desperate need for ego enhancement are as necessary as the critical automatic self-preservation processes of the body – like breathing.

And our need for self-enhancement isn’t a modern phenomenon. It’s accumulated over our human evolutionary history.

The desire to see yourself as better than average and more competent, skilled, intelligent, and beautiful than you truly are is likely embedded in your psyche as a by-product of millions of years of forging ahead against the same odds of survival that have erased 99 percent of all species that once roamed this planet.

David McRaney

And this quirk of human nature is no doubt compounded and sculpted by more modern social structures. From our upbringing to the social media platforms we virtually inhabit.

3. We tend to be egocentric

We know ourselves well. And this self-knowledge, while faulty, naturally lends itself to egocentrism. But being egocentric (knowing and caring about your interests) should not be confused with egotism (although they can overlap).

Given that we know ourselves, it’s natural to overrate ourselves compared to others. We don’t necessarily know who these other folk are. We imagine ‘others’.

For instance, if asked how you compare to, let’s say, your university peers, how many do you know well? It’s a sure bet that you’re guessing in large part.

How do we overcome the Lake Wobegon effect?

It’s all very well knowing what the Lake Wobegon effect is. But how do we avoid its more menacing effects?

Key takeways

While not exhaustive, the seven pointers below reveal how to improve your authentic self.

1. Humility is a superpower

We all can think of a totalitarian, dominant figure who knows best. But while bad leaders still stubbornly cling to power, research and practitioners now (thankfully) highlight the superpower of humility in leadership. A leader who isn’t shy to admit mistakes and shortcomings is a better leader of self and others. Humility is a strength, not a weakness.

2. Self compassion is vital

Many possess a harsh inner critic. But an incessant punishing voice sabotages progress. Instead, learning to be kind and compassionate when a gap between perception and reality emerges is the best way to progress. To quieten your inner critic, make it a friend, not an enemy, to unleash your potential.

3. Get more concrete

Abstract notions of any trait, ability or attribute induce unrealistic assessments. In reality, the critical stuff is rarely one thing. Take research or leadership. They encompass a cluster of abilities and attributes. When we have a concrete idea of the myriad of things that make up these umbrella terms, we can begin to see more clearly where our strengths and weaknesses lie.

4. Seek out objective measures

Knowing we fall prey to the BTAE effect keeps our minds more open to gaps in reality. Proactively seeking out more objective measures helps us to close the gaps successfully.

For instance, invite good friends who you trust to be kind and honest with you. Or try out more objective measures, such as accurate scientific scales to help reveal gaps. And we can all learn to be more open with ourselves.

Above all, consider the rewards of self-actualisation. Imagine fulfilling your potential.

5. Don’t try and fix every gap

When we adopt systems thinking, it quickly becomes apparent we don’t need to change the whole system. Instead, we need to identify which gaps could leverage the most change.

This point reemphasises point 3 – consider all the attributes, qualities, and abilities of a researcher or self leader. Which gap, if closed, would bring about transformative change?

6. Don’t overlook the Worse-Than-Average Effect

As prevalent as BTAE is, in some respects, we go the other way. We fall into faulty negative thinking traps. But again, are we being realistic? While the WTAE effect deserves an article in itself, for now, suffice it to say, you may be too hard on yourself.

We can’t be good at everything. But we benefit when good at the things that make our lives easier, happier and better.

7. Consider our applied self leadership course

As it’s difficult to appraise realistically and improve the wide-ranging, highly beneficial self-leadership skills, please consider our applied self leadership course.

Our safe, friendly, online learning environment is jam-packed with objective self-assessment tools. It also customises your transformative learning pathway to make sure it both suits and works well for you.

Many thanks for reading – any thoughts or suggestions are most welcome below.

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