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The Lake Wobegon effect is the human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others. It is named for the fictional town of Lake Wobegon from the radio series A Prairie Home Companion, where, according to Garrison Keillor, "all the children are above average". In a similar way, a large majority of people claim to be above average; this phenomenon has been observed among drivers, CEOs, stock market analysts, college students, and state education officials, among others. Experiments and surveys have repeatedly shown that most people believe that they possess attributes that are better or more desirable than average.
Surveying drivers, Ole Svenson (1981) found that 80% of respondents rated themselves in the top 30% of all drivers. Asking college students about their popularity, Zuckerman and Jost (2001) showed that most students judged themselves to be "more popular than average".
In 1987, John Cannell completed a study that reported the statistically impossible finding that all states claimed average student test scores above the national norm.
One College Board survey asked 829,000 high school seniors to rate themselves in a number of ways. When asked to rate their own ability to "get along with others," a statistically insignificant number — less than one percent — rated themselves as below average. Furthermore, sixty percent rated themselves in the top ten percent, and one-fourth of respondents rated themselves in the top one percent. Some have argued that more subjective traits like this may be more easily distorted.
The effect has been found repeatedly by many other studies for other traits, including fairness, virtuosity, luck, and investing ability, to name a few.
The effect is similar and may be related to ingroup bias and wishful thinking. In contrast, the worse-than-average effect refers to a tendency to underestimate oneself in certain conditions, which may include self-handicapping behavior.
Compare to the false consensus effect.
- Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47, 143-48.
- Myers, D. G. (1980). The Inflated Self. New York: Seabury Press.
- Zuckerman, E. W., & Jost, J. T. (2001). What Makes You Think You're So Popular? Self Evaluation Maintenance and the Subjective Side of the "Friendship Paradox". Social Psychology Quarterly, 64(3), 207-223.
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