The “Lake Wobegon” Effect

Where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
– Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion

Sure, that line is used for laughs on NPR on Saturday afternoons to describe the placid, fictional Lake Wobegon, but the humor points to a rather serious matter: people constantly overrate their own achievements and capabilities in relation to others.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say I took you and ninety-nine other random readers of The Simple Dollar and gave you all a battery of tests to rate your intelligence. Where would you predict that you would rank in the end? Would you be in the top half? Would you be in the top ten?

If I were guessing, I would probably put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack. I think I’m fast at putting simple ideas together into a somewhat more interesting larger grouping (I’m good at Jeopardy!, in other words), but I’m not particularly brilliant or anything. I find myself consistently falling short of where I hope I would be in lots of areas.

If you gave me the same question ten years ago – or even five years ago – I know quite well that I would have ranked myself very high with such a question. My set of experiences, to that point, had vastly overrated my small gift of relative speed and convinced me that I had special abilities. Constant positive reinforcement of those abilities didn’t help – seeing people surprised at my speed of limited recall and limited association and having them tell me how impressive it was further inflated my perception of myself.

The same is true for most people and most features. Almost all of us have abilities or features that we consider above average – quite often, we consider the sum of these abilities and features to be above average. And why not? The world around us has shown it to be true – people give us positive feedback all the time, so we must be good, right?

The “Lake Wobegon Effect”: Factors to Consider

1. People generally prefer positive interaction

Most people prescribe to the notion that if you have nothing positive to say, don’t say anything at all. They’ll look at an individual, identify whatever traits they can that they deem to at least not be a huge negative, and complement the person on those traits.

A person with average looks – perhaps a below-average figure but above-average eyes – may have heard many complements on their eyes and thus believe that their overall looks are above average – after all, people are complementing you, right?

2. It’s a good survival strategy to believe we can handle anything

Without an underlying sense of success, people would be afraid to try anything new. New technologies wouldn’t be proposed or even introduced. New ideas wouldn’t be shared. In short, confidence is useful.

3. We often overextend our healthy level of confidence to an unsafe point

This happens in two directions – we’re overconfident in some areas where some degree of confidence is appropriate (our own skills, for example) and confident (often quietly so) in areas we have no control over whatsoever (like our continuing health).

Each of these directions has a different set of tools to help you succeed.

Solutions to the “Lake Wobegon” Effect

For overconfidence, try placing your skills in competition with others

The more direct this competition is, the better. Many people avoid competition because they fear losing or looking bad. I argue that losing is actually more valuable than winning. It teaches you that you’re not the best and shows you what you need to work on.

For example, I often use my subscriber count as a way to compare myself to other bloggers. It’s easy to see that I’m left in the dust by many other blogs – Daily Kos and TechCrunch, for example, have orders of magnitude more subscribers than I do. This is proof positive that I’m not the best writer out there. I respond not by thinking “I’m a failure,” but by thinking “I know I can do better than that” and seek ways to reach out even more.

For misplaced confidence, visualize some worst-case scenarios

What happens to you if you’re hit by a truck tomorrow morning? What happens to you if you get a serious disease? What happens if those things happen to your spouse? Your child? What if your company goes under tomorrow morning and you walk in facing a pink slip?

Those scenarios often point you in the right direction for finding appropriate ways to actually back up your personal confidence. Start an emergency fund. Create a master information document. Get a good term life insurance policy. Build good relationships with people in your career field – and in your neighborhood.

In other words, back up that confidence with something real. The better the structure behind you, the more likely it is that you really are living in your own Lake Wobegon, where things really are above average, safe, and secure.