Are ALL Minnesotans Above Average?

Nov 12, 2015

World-famous Minnesotan Garrison Keillor often features the fictional MN town of Lake Woebegone in his show “A Prairie Home Companion,” as a place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

David Myers, an author of textbooks on Social Psychology has used “A Prairie Home Companion” to coin a term that describes a certain type of social psychology phenomenon in which people believe they are better than the average person.

“I'm reading and reporting on study after study that shows that most people think they're better than average in just about any dimension that's both subjective and socially desirable. And then I hear the introduction of ‘A Prairie Home Companion' where all the children are above average. And I think ‘That's it! A Prairie Home Companion has captured the world,’” Myers says. 

The “Lake Woebegone” effect is now sometimes used to describe the universal scientific phenomenon of people believing they're a step above the average.

While in Minnesota recently, Science Friday host Ira Flatow, together with visiting professor of psychology at Macalister College, Jessica Salvatore, decided to test the Lake Woebegone effect on an auditorium full of Minnesotans. 

“There was a study 30-40 years ago of someone who compared people who had found themselves in the hospital after driving accidents, some of which they had themselves caused versus people who had no accident history. And it turned out that both groups thought of themselves as above average drivers. So that that sparked one of the most interesting, easy to remember and just notable demonstrations of the better than average effect,” Salvatore explains. 

And indeed, when polled, an auditorium full of Minnesotans did in fact believe that they were above average drivers. Out of 400 audience members who responded to a cell phone quiz, 77 percent said they were a safer than the average driver. 

“Assuming driving ability is normally distributed, that simply cannot be true,” Salvatore says.

The Lake Woebegone effect has been tested in many experiments, and does indeed extend to how parents view their children.

“Parents do show this in regard to talking about their children. But what's interesting is it's correlated with their own individual ratings of above-averageness,” Salvatore says, “So parents who see themselves as, you know, special snowflakes also see their children as particularly special snowflakes.”

Salvatore thinks the Lake Woebegone effect may have something to do with the way we as a society view average-ness.

“Average is kind of a dirty word, like mediocrity. I think we get that in our socialization. There are a couple of things going on in the Above Average Effect, the Lake Wobegon Effect, and one of them is absolutely the idea of motivated reasoning, that we would like to see ourselves in positive terms, with a slight rose-colored tint to the glasses we have on,” Salvatore says. 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow.