Lake Wobegon Effect & Change

By | 04/05/2021

The name might sound strange, but I’m sure you have come across this effect many times in your daily private and business life: Lake Wobegon Effect (in social psychology also called illusory superiority). It describes the human tendency to overestimate one’s own abilities and achievements in relation to others. Among many others, it has been studied in people’s self-perception of their IQ, driving ability, health, academic ability, job performance. It is common to people from all walks of life – and has for example been studied in CEOs and stock market analysts. In all these areas, a majority of people rate their own abilities and skills to be among the top. Need an example? In a survey among teaching staff at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 68% of respondents rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability, and 94% of them rated themselves as above average.

“Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Standard ending of the fictional radio program A Prairie Home Companion by Garrison Keillor 

The fact that most people believe that they possess attributes that are better or more desirable than average has a number of implications for change:

Neglecting the necessity for (further) change

Du to illusory superiority, individuals frequently fail to realistically assess their own situation and skills. While the true circumstances would in fact require a particular change in behavior or attitude, their misperception of themselves leads to sustaining routines and practices. Take a study from Hoorens & Harris (1998), in which the participants self-reported that they carried out healthy behaviors significantly more often than the average peer, and unhealthy behaviors less often. Overestimating one’s own healthy routines (sleeping more, eating healthier, worrying less, smoking less, and drinking less coffee than the average) keeps people from rethinking and eventually changing their own behavior. In a change project, you will struggle to create a sense of urgency among people who already think they are close to achieving the target state, although in reality there is still some distance to master.

Overestimating one’s changeability

But even where people realize that a change is required, Lake Wobegon effect hits as it also leads to people overestimating their own ability to change. Take climate change and natural conservation for example: studies show that a large majority of people consider themselves to be a lot more pro-environmental than others – both when people compared themselves against “the average population” as well as their direct peers. This may in the end jeopardize your own change efforts, as people may reduce their own adaptation and change efforts halfway through your project.

So what can you do?

It is important to do frequent pulse checks with your target group to understand not only their perception of the change but also their self-perception in relation to this change. Even if your feedback shows you that people are accepting the change – this may well lull you into a false sense of security. So we need to counter the brain trying to trick and comfort people. Helping them to more realistically assess their own skills, actions, or performance can help you to correct the illusory superiority effect. Enabling an active exchange between members of your target group for example (so they notice that they are not better than average…) may be one option. Using some lighthouse and best practice cases another (where people can hardly pretend to themselves that they are really better). In any case, Lake Wobegon is an effect to keep in mind when identifying a significant discrepancy between your interaction with the target group and your observation of real behaviour.

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