Lake Woebegone Effect

May 21, 2012 by Jonathan Becher 0

Lake Woebegone is a fictional Minnesota town on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion described as “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Lake Woebegone may be fictional but the tendency of people to overestimate their own positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative ones is real. This cognitive bias is called ‘illusory superiority’ in the social psychology literature but is more popularly known as the above average effect. It’s obviously mathematically impossible but we all think we’re above average.

Why?

A recent series of studies provide some insight by comparing how we evaluate ourselves versus other people. The researchers summarize:

In Studies 1a and 1b, participants were more likely to believe that their own most attractive photographs best represent their typical appearance than others’ do. In Study 2, participants’ estimates of where they stand on various trait dimensions coincided with their highest possible standing, whereas their estimates of an acquaintance’s standing coincided with the midpoint between the latter’s highest and lowest possible standing. In Study 3, regression analyses revealed that students’ predictions of their own final exam score were based most heavily on their highest score received to that point, but their predictions of someone else’s final exam score was based most heavily on that student’s average score.

In other words, we evaluate ourselves based on our best performance but we evaluate others based on their average performance.

I couldn’t find any supporting science but it would be interesting to find out whether the illusory superiority applies to groups. Does this cognitive bias cause one sports team to judge itself superior to another? Companies? Religions? Political parties? If the above average effect holds up for groups, it might explain a lot of irrational behavior.

By the way, my home town is better than Lake Woebegone.

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