Lake Wobegon Effect: A Curious Cognitive Bias

The Lake Wobegon effect is related to the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Lake Wobegon effect

Everyone claims to be honest and sincere, however, let’s be truly honest: everyone lies, and this can be seen when describing ourselves

Nobody likes to admit that they have certain weaknesses and there are many people who exaggerate their strengths.

This is basically how the Lake Wobegon effect works , a very common curious psychological phenomenon that we will see in greater depth below.

Lake Wobegon effect – what is it?

The Lake Wobegon effect or Lake Wobegon is the tendency present in practically all human beings to overestimate their own abilities compared to that of others.

It receives the name of a fictional city, invention of the writer Garrison Keillor, named in the same way. At Lake Wobegon, according to the writer, all the women are strong, all the men are handsome, and all the children are above average. But it wasn’t Garrison who gave the phenomenon its name, but University of Michigan psychology professor David G. Myers.

This effect, which is a cognitive bias, is very common. There is no one in the world who has not carried it out on more than one occasion. In fact, it has been approached experimentally with age groups and profession of all kinds, being the investigations in drivers, university students, CEOs and many others, in which it has been possible to see how everyone believes themselves better than others .

For example, in the study in which drivers were taken as a sample, it was found that 95% of those who were part of it believed they had a better driving ability than that of other vehicle users. Another study, in this case with students, had similar percentages when the sample was asked about how they look in terms of their ability to learn, memorization, popularity on campus …

In other words, we tend to overestimate our faculties and capacities, we attribute to misfortune having failed an exam or having suffered a traffic accident, but we take credit for having obtained a good academic grade.

Is it always bad?

As crude as its definition may seem, the Lake Wobegon effect phenomenon isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, as long as it occurs within more or less healthy limits, it can be a protective factor of self-esteem and prevent psychopathologies from occurring.

It is normal that, when something bad happens to us, such as failing an exam or having lost a job, many people lie to themselves saying that it is not their fault, but, in this case, the teacher or the boss . Thus, instead of making self-criticism about the fact of, for example, not having studied or not having been as responsible as one should be, the person chooses to believe that the fault of his misfortune is due to other people.

Although we are not going to discuss how convenient it is to study or be responsible at work, we can see that lying, in this case, is a self-esteem protection mechanism. The person has an externalized locus of control, that is, she attributes her misfortunes to the action of things that she believes she cannot control.

This type of processing of what happens and thinking that you are especially better in terms of what qualities can prevent a situation of depression, stress from occurring, and increases the desire to carry out solutions for the specific situation.

Causes of this cognitive bias

One of the explanations behind the manifestation of this so common phenomenon is that of how children are raised in most countries. From an early age we are told that we are ‘special’, better than our schoolmates and other neighborhood children, something that we end up believing and that is a very important foundation in our self-esteem. In turn, this is raw material to form value judgments, own merits, stereotypes and other unconscious attitudes.

However, once you have grown up and have obtained a greater knowledge of others, seeing that you are stronger and weaker in a wide repertoire of skills, this belief is reduced, although it never completely disappears. In many aspects we believe that we are superior, despite the fact that it is still an illusion, and personal defects and mistakes are obviated.

In adulthood, the abuse of this cognitive bias may be due to the personality characteristics of the person who manifests it. If you are an insincere person with others, it is quite likely that you are not being sincere with yourself either, although it can be said that practically nobody is honest with others or with yourself, and self-criticism is not easy.

Deceiving yourself in this way can be a ‘symptom’ of being overly vain and having a genuinely pathological way of viewing your own strengths in comparison to others. These people, taken to extremes, are unable to see their mistakes, which in itself can become a problem at a social and learning level.

It’s interesting to see that this bias is directly related to how incompetent you are. The more incompetent you are in a certain task, the less aware you are of how bad you are. This is why the people who most pride themselves on their culture and intelligence, when it comes to demonstrating it, can be made a real fool by showing that they know practically nothing, or that there will always be someone who will know more.


As we were already saying in the causes section, it has been seen that people who have more or less mediocre capacities, or even below average, will be the ones who believed and claimed to possess the most knowledge. In fact, this is not something new. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, referred to them as ‘bildungsphilisters’, ignoramuses who pride themselves on their knowledge and experience, even though it is really very limited.

Interestingly, the same effect has been seen as invested in people who have slightly higher than average returns. These people, far from showing that they know more than normal people, seem to underestimate their true potential, showing themselves more doubtful and insecure in front of others, as if they really believed they were completely ignorant. This has been called self-sabotaging behaviors.

In the case of the Lake Wobegon effect, we can speak of two fundamental consequences in the people who carry it out. The first is the wrong decision making, thinking that as they are experts in the field they will not be wrong, and the second is the inability to be self-critical with respect to the field that they claim to believe they have a broad domain over it.

This translates into a blockage in the ability to grow and evolve personally, as long as the effect of Lake Wobegon occurs in pathological degrees and the person is totally unable to make self-criticism of their real strengths and weaknesses.

Bibliographic references:

  • Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47, 143-48.
  • Myers, DG (1980). The Inflated Self. New York: Seabury Press.
  • Zuckerman, EW, & Jost, JT (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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