Lake Wobegon Effect (Definition + Examples)

The Lake Wobegon Effect is one of those phenomena in psychology that you can immediately apply to many people in your life. But what is it? Let’s find out!

What is the Lake Wobegon Effect?

The Lake Wobegon Effect, often called the Lake Wobegon Fallacy, is the tendency to overestimate one’s abilities. This is more likely to show up when we compare ourselves to others, which social psychologists say is a natural way to gauge our process and skills. 

Leon Festinger laid the groundwork for the Lake Wobegon Effect by introducing the Social Comparison Theory. Similar theories in social psychology emphasize how much time we spend looking to others to assess ourselves. 

What Is Another Name for the Lake Wobegon Effect?

You may also know the Lake Wobegon Effect by one of its other names:

  • Illusory Superiority 
  • Superiority Bias
  • Above-Average Effect

Is Lake Wobegon A Real Place? History of the Lake Wobegon Effect

In 1987, a physicist named John Jacob Cannell published a report that was equal parts comical and concerning. The report looked at how each state in the country fared when it came to elementary school performance. The actual rankings of the states don’t matter for the purpose of this video. What does matter is the fact that each state reported that the performance of their elementary schools was above-average. 

Every single one believed this to be true. 

Obviously, that is impossible. 

Sure, some of the states were above-average. But for every state that is above-average, there is going to be a state that is below-average. That’s kinda the point of finding an average number. 

At the same time, a radio show called Prairie Home Companion was broadcasting live every week. The setting of the show was a fictional city called Lake Wobegon. Garrison Keiller, the host of the show, would say that Lake Wobegon was a place where “all women are strong, all men are good-looking and all children are above-average.”

Thus, the Lake Wobegon Effect was born. 

What Abilities or Skills Are Overinflated By the Lake Wobegon Effect? 

It turns out, we think we’re above-average at a lot of things. Studies on the Lake Wobegon Effect have focused on skills like leadership, popularity, and investing ability. A majority of participants believed that they were above-average at these skills. The Lake Wobegon Effect even appears when people are assessing their luck or beating the odds when facing a terminal illness. 

The one skill that comes up again and again when we talk about the Lake Wobegon Effect is driving. In 1981, psychologists asked participants how they would rank themselves when it came to their driving ability. 80% of the participants put themselves in the top 30% of drivers. And while this obviously does not reflect reality, it may have some very real consequences. 

This effect is even more concerning now than when it was first studied in the 1980s. Distracted driving killed 2,800 people in 2018 alone. That’s over seven people per day. Most distracted driving accidents are caused by texting, calling, and other cell phone usage. And while a majority of people believe that distracted driving is dangerous, a majority of people also use their cell phone while driving. Psychologists see a link between the Lake Wobegon Effect and these numbers. A driver may say that texting and driving is dangerous for other people to do, but make an exception for themselves, a supposedly above-average driver. 

Lake Wobegon Effect and Dunning-Kruger Effect

dunning kruger effect

The Lake Wobegon Effect is not the only concept that suggests we are hyping ourselves up too much. The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains a similar tendency, although there are slight differences between the two ideas. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect essentially says “you don’t know what you don’t know.” If you don’t know a lot about a subject, you are not likely to know how far behind you are compared to others. This can create a real sense of overinflated, and cringe-worthy, confidence. 

Let’s say, for example, that a guy wants to take up coding. Having no coding experience or knowledge, he may think, “How hard can it be?” He has experience with HTML, so he’s already on his way to being a great programmer, right? 

Anyone with a little more experience in coding may be shaking their heads. The guy’s lack of experience has shielded him from all of the other coding languages out there: CSS, JavaScript, Python, C++, SQL, you name it. Only until the aspiring programmer gets into coding will he realize that his abilities aren’t so ahead of the game. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is especially concerning. It suggests that people with the least amount of knowledge on a subject are still (if not more) likely to rank themselves much higher than they actually are. 

Remember The Lake Wobegon Effect  

I’ve got some news for you. Yes, you. You’re not immune to the Lake Wobegon Effect. You are especially not immune to it if you’re just hearing about it for the first time. 

I’m not trying to tell you that you are below-average by any means. Everyone has strengths and opportunities for improvement. But no one is above-average at everything. And by no means is everyone above-average at everything. 

We’ve briefly looked at some of the effects of the Lake Wobegon Effect:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Unrealistic beliefs about performance and current strategies in use 
  • Taking risks based on unrealistic expectations
  • False hope

This can also cause tension between someone who believes they are above-average at some skills and people who are above-average. Take the aspiring programmer. His attitude and false confidence may be laughable (or annoying) to people who have amassed above-average coding skills. People who believe they are more persuasive or charismatic than they really are may turn people off before they can reach any goals. If you believe that you have more skills than you actually have, you may not be able to see the real barriers that are getting in your way. 

So what can you do about this? 

  • Stay humble. Simply reminding yourself this effect may put things into perspective. 
  • Set expectations (with others.) Your idea of an “above-average” performance may be very different from someone else’s idea of an “above-average” performance. Communicate and get feedback as you are setting goals or assessing your skills. An outsider’s perspective may help you see where your skills really lie. 
  • Don’t take things personally. It can be frustrating to hear someone bragging about their skills. But remember, you are not the only person who is affected by this cognitive bias. This video might come in handy when you run into an overconfident coworker or a bragging buddy.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.