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The Lake Woebegone Effect

Notes & Transcripts

You see, when you start judging your own goodness, you really get into trouble. You may fall victim to the “Lake Woebegone Effect.” Garrison Keillor, the inventor of the show, The Prairie Home Companion, told stories of a fictional town in Minnesota named “Lake Woebegone.” In this town, “all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” Psychologists talk about our tendency to, as in Lake Woebegone, see ourselves way above average as the state of “illusory superiority.” It simply means that we tend to inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially when compared to others.

Numerous research studies have revealed this tendency to overestimate ourselves. For instance, when researches asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60 percent of students believed they were in the top 10 percent; 25 percent rated themselves in the top one percent. You'd think college professors might have more self-insight, but they were just as biased about their abilities. Two percent rated themselves below average; 10 percent were average and 63 were above average; while 25 percent rated themselves as truly exceptional.

Of course this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: "It's the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person." Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that the "Lake Wobegone Effect" reveals our pride. He writes, "One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves."

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