Lake Wobegon Syndrome: Believing We’re All Above Average

Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon is that Midwestern enclave where:

…the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Lately, there are curious signs of incipient Wobegonism – at least the part about the kids. On average, we’re all looking just a little too above-average.

Unconditional Positive Self-Regard

I once watched Marshall Goldsmith ask a room of conference participants to lower their heads, then raise their hands if they thought they were in the top 50% of performers in the room. Then, to keep their hands up if they were in the top 25%; then, the top 10%.

When he finally asked people to raise their heads, all could plainly see that over half the room had indicated they were in the top 10%.

The concept of unconditional positive regard is well-known among therapists. There’s something to be said about positive self-regard as well, in the simple sense that if you can’t accept yourself you’re going to have trouble dealing with other people.

But what happens if your sense of self-regard begins to diverge from reality? What happens if you begin to believe you’re All That – and honestly, you’re not?

Reality Bites

Generation Y, famously raised on a sense of entitlement, is having a tough time confronting today’s horrific economic environment. 60% think they have the right to work remotely, with flexible schedules, despite the economy.

Worse, Gen Y’s much-vaunted computer skills may have been overstated; social media savvy doesn’t translate well to spreadsheets, or even to navigating hierarchical menu structures.

Perhaps recognizing an inflection point, the Wellesley High School graduating class recently made news for being told in a commencement speech that “You are not special…you are not exceptional.”

But it’s not just about Gen Y – not by a long shot. Here at Trusted Advisor Associates, we’ve noticed a distinct case of “grade inflation.” Scores on our Trust Quotient (TQ) self-assessment, have been creeping up over the past year or two. There are several possible explanations, including:

  1. people are becoming more trustworthy,
  2. people think they are becoming more trustworthy.

I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the latter.  Stay tuned.

Overstating our importance is a natural consequence of ignorance. Believing the world is flat was understandable in a world without airplanes or telescopes. But when a modern nation like the US has 46% of its population who believe in creationism, some cognitive dysfunction is afoot.

Politicians bear some blame.  The Speaker of the House declares that the US has “the best healthcare system in the world,” which defies logic unless you exclude the other developed economies.

Many pols publicly support the fiction that balancing the national budget is fundamentally the same as balancing a household budget. Any undergrad econ major can tell you the rules of national economies and households are precisely the opposite. It’s hard to tell if this statement lie is cynical, or just grossly ignorant, much less which is worse.

In our social haste to abandon low self-esteem, we have overplayed the power of a positive attitude. We once heard phrases like “you make your own luck,” “smile before you dial,” and, “the glass is half full.” Corporate training once taught that you could act your way into right thinking.

Somehow, those morphed into, “Hold fast to your dream and it will come true,” saying affirmations until they “manifest,” and best sellers like The Secret. We’ve gone way past “thinking your way into right action,” all the way to “envision reality until reality changes to fit our thinking!”

One of the biggest instances of hubris in our time has to be finance. Efficient market theory, the agency theory that led to private equity, and the various financial engineering “innovations” we have seen in recent decades – all are testimony to a belief that we have found revealed (financial) truth. Yet time and again, it seems we have not.

Two Flavors of Humility

There are two kinds of humility. One consists “not in thinking less of ourselves, but in thinking of ourselves less.” The other amounts to, well, thinking less of ourselves – realizing that we’re not, in fact, All That.

We need a little of both.

Thinking of ourselves less drives relationship thinking; it civilizes us, focuses us on other people. It is the root of social behavior, charity, and most of the higher virtues.

Thinking of ourselves less drives other-focus, collaboration, and connection. It enables client focus, allows us to see value adding potential, and creates the basis for reciprocity and customer loyalty.

Thinking less of ourselves is neither sin nor virtue except insofar as our starting point is delusional. Thinking we know it all is a cyclical affectation, a very human failing we are nonetheless good at forgetting.

Until once again things blow up, revert to the mean, and we get our comeuppance, or our karmic smackdown, or our luck runs out.  What we call it depends on how much we still believe we understand what just happened.

Here’s what we need a whole lot more of:

“I really am not sure; what do you think?”

15 replies
  1. LookALittleDeeper
    LookALittleDeeper says:

    “when a modern nation like the US has 46% of its population who believe in creationism, some cognitive dysfunction is afoot.” Possibly the author is struggling with believing that they are “All that”. Most of the world believes in some kind of creationism. To disregard it so flippantly is a bit egotistical.

  2. WhatsInAName
    WhatsInAName says:

    > Most of the world believes in some kind of creationism. To
    > disregard it so flippantly is a bit egotistical.

    Most kids believe in the tooth fairy and easter bunny. Just because they believe in a fairy tale doesn’t they are correct. One might call their belief in the irrational dysfunction were they not 5 years old.

  3. pikine
    pikine says:

    “when a modern nation like the US has 46% of its population who believe in creationism, some cognitive dysfunction is afoot.” Don’t you know that the same Bible, whose Book of Genesis conveyed the creationism belief, is mostly about teaching us humility? It’s the other 54% who do not believe in God thinking too highly of themselves, giving the whole nation cognitive dysfunction.

  4. Mark Norman
    Mark Norman says:

    For humility that you can’t simply put back on the bookshelf, you have to look to science. As we seek to find out more about God’s creation around us, we have learnt:

    • Genetically we are still very nearly apes.
    • Our eyes only see a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum.
    • Our ears only hear a fraction of what animals hear.
    • Our minds are prone to all sorts of lazy shortcuts of thinking.

    • Our planet is not the centre of the universe.
    • Most of the universe is not made for humanity: it’s space, or stars, or planets that are completely inhospitable.
    • The sum of human history amounts to a tiny slice of the life of our planet so far.
    • The end of the dinosaurs was not a one-off; our planet has had regular meteorite impacts throughout its long history. There is no evidence to suggest that anything will stop the next one, apart from us.

    In short, God Built Big, and He built us quite small. No wonder so many people can’t adjust their egos to cope, and hide their heads in a book instead.

  5. Enders_Shadow
    Enders_Shadow says:

    “Many pols publicly support the fiction that balancing the national
    budget is fundamentally the same as balancing a household budget. Any
    undergrad econ major can tell you the rules of national economies and households are precisely the opposite.”
    Given the record of economics over the past 10 years, this claim isn’t looking terribly clever. Though to be fair, at least economists can provide some sort of explanation: the failure of criminologists to provide any explanation for the disappearing crime rate suggests the closure of their departments would be the right solution for saving universities money

  6. Robert Alatalo
    Robert Alatalo says:

    It was a mistake to bring up a speculative theory which is predicated on an assumption that there isn’t a creator as some proof of thinking problem.

    Take Genetically modified food, does that have a creator? If it does then how would you prove that in 100 years, in a 1000 years? Consider the effect that the Genetically modified plants are having on other plants, does that negate the origins?

    Assume some super advanced aliens landed on Earth and reported that they were checking in on their experiment and they wanted to see how their creations had fared. Lets assume they are some advanced that they can demonstrate creation of various living creatures and show reference designs for all the creatures that have every lived on earth and proceed to recreate them perfectly.

    What proof would they need to provide before you would allow your belief in random evolution to be replaced? How could you prove they were falsely just trying to take credit?

    Lastly, you know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line… it’s basic geometry and anyone who doesn’t believe it would be a fool. But, if you end up in a discussion about sphere geometry, you would be the fool to hold to that belief because the assumptions of a plane have changed.

    Look at the assumptions of science… Science doesn’t allow for any external force which can’t be demonstrated, ie.. no ‘god in a basket’ so no God at all.

    Take a group of geneticist and ask them to come up with a theory some Genetically modified plant could have come into existence without being genetically modified and they will do it. That doesn’t suddenly mean the plant wasn’t created only that there can be theories which could explain it’s creation without relying on there being a creator.

    Let’s look at the question of if there a creature which has the ability and desire to create the universe and everything in it. The answer is either yes or no. If it’s no, then evolution provides a plausible explanation. If however there is some entity which has the ability and desire to create the universe then wouldn’t the theory of creationism be more sensible?

    Just like evolution could eventually, potentially created the plants that humans did, if there is a god it’s much more like that were created than some random roll of the dice based on evolution.

    It’s no different than what’s the shorted distance between two points? Know your assumptions before you answer.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Sorry Robert, go read David Hume of some three hundred years ago, who put a fork in the cosmological proof of the existence of god.

      In a nutshell, he argued that you can’t prove anything from one instance, no matter how many other billions of instances there are, because that one instance is the only one from which we’d be here to argue.

      You’re also hinting at what is known as the ontological argument for the existence of God – your idea that “if however there is some entity which has the ability and desire to create the universe then wouldn’t the theory of creationism be more sensible?”

      The flaw in that argument is famously that “existence cannot be a predicate.” Just because you can imagine that there is some divine creator doesn’t mean a damn thing about whether there in fact is.

      The issue is not proving that evolution is wrong – the issue is the impossibility of proving anything conclusively right. That throws things back on the preponderance of evidence, in inductive rather than deductive reasoning. And the more billions of worlds that get discovered, the more fossils get uncovered, the more implausible it seems that some anthropomorphic being created the whole thing a few thousand years ago, centered on planet Earth.

      The “speculative theory” isn’t evolution, it’s the idea of a creator – conveniently out of range of empirical proof one way or the other. One can always create an imaginary answer for all things that appear unexplainable – it’s called “deus ex machina.”

      • Robert Alatalo
        Robert Alatalo says:

        No, I am not trying to prove that GOD exists, only speculating that you can’t prove that GOD doesn’t exist.

        I don’t know if there is or isn’t a GOD and I don’t know if we got here via creation or evolution and neither does anyone else.

        Why do we need to fall back to inductive reasoning and why does more fossils prove anything more than additional cars in the junk yard?

        All I was trying to point out is that all logic is based on assumptions and if the start with different assumptions you will end up with different conclusions.

        Most of the sciences don’t care if there is a god or not, because they focus on reproducible experiments and explore what is. Evolution is very different from all the others and as such it matters.

        Evolution is a roll of the dice… not the survival part. but the mutation part. It’s based on the predicate that there is no design, not pattern and no logic to any of the mutations and they all just randomly happened that way. The theory relies on there not being any thing out there which could provide a simpler answer. This is the assumption that is made without proof, which while is valid to assume is also the weakness of evolution as a theory.

        Once we ourselves reach the level of technology were we are influencing and changing the ‘natural’ development we need to realize that if we can do it then why couldn’t some else do it? Are we the only ‘intelligent’ life in the universe, are we the most advanced?

        The assumption that there isn’t anything that did influence our development, that there wasn’t a plan or a creator doesn’t make true anymore than the belief in God makes one exist.

        truly, while you can say the burden of proof lies on the believers to prove there does exist, the real burden lies with the maker of the claim to support the claim they make. The proof that there is no Ketchup in the fridge is harder than the proof that this is Ketchup in the fridge.

        All I am stating is that there is either a God who could have created us or there isn’t. If there is a God and I don’t know that there is or isn’t, but if there is a God then it’s more likely that he created us then we happened by chance. This is no different that finds of stone tools or old chalk drawings being used to support the previous habitation of humans in that area. The assumption being that it’s more likely that humans ( who we ‘know’ exist) are more likely to have been at that place and created those items than it is for them to have been created by random natural events.

        Don’t mistake me for advocating God or creation, I am only trying to make it clear that unless you disprove the existence of God you can’t prove evolution as being any better of a theory than creationism…. not for lack of the theory of evolution, but for its unproven assumption.

        • Kat
          Kat says:

          The assumptions of evolution have been proven – countless times. And you are mistaken that the theory of evolution is based upon totally random mutations. The reason the theory’s name is based upon species evolving – is that evolution is predicated upon needs-based modifications to a design that is adaptive to environment. The theory of evolution has had more fact-based evidence, that can be backed by science, than almost any other well accepted theory. To say that God and Evolution are equivalent in that neither can be proven is to miss the difference between myth-based belief systems and the scientific method entirely. Being in awe of the world, is not evidence of God – it is evidence that there is much we do not understand. That lack of understanding is not an excuse to fill in the blanks with the mysticism of the age. Myths have persisted since very early in mankind’s recorded history – but the evolution of the myths – have provided precious little evidence for Gods.

          • Robert Alatalo
            Robert Alatalo says:

            Go review evolution some more… it’s predicated on survival of he fittest, that those ‘traits’ which are best suited to the environment will allow those ‘features’ to be passed on while those which are ill suited will not survive long enough to pass on their traits. The introduction of new traits is constant and random, unless you want to say there is a pre-planed design?

            Have you ever scene two branches fall in the woods across each other? Have you ever scene the wind drag something across a surface leaving marks? Those are natural and documented and observable, repeatable, They also leave a possible explanation for for some ‘evidence’ which is used to support the early habitation of humans (at some stage) because someone assumes that humans could exist and the probability of some intelligence created the items is greater than the probability of the other options.

            Yet, you still don’t grasp the ability to understand that there are three possible answers to even yes/no questions, the unknown. Think about all the unsolved math problems where in some cases they think they may know but in other cases they really aren’t sure, but in all cases they can’t prove it either way.

            You talk about not filling the void of understanding with mysticism but in some ways evolution is just another type of mysticism. Not all the myths revolved around gods.

            Evolution has only to limited degree been ‘documented’ to produce new species. I don’t recall the study but I believe a group of (fruit) flies were split in two and after some time re-introduced and theorized that they couldn’t interbreed anymore. But it’s not clear if that was due to other factors than evolution.

            Evolution experts are starting to struggle with trying to explain why we still haven’t seen ‘small’ examples of it showing up over recorded history, even while I believe mutations rates are either constant or increasing?

            But all of this still doesn’t address the question of our ability to genetically not being unique in the universe and while you might not believe in god. Can you prove that across the existence of the universe that we at our current time and place are the only ‘intelligence’ to have this ability and knowledge?

  7. Blueskies
    Blueskies says:

    “The Speaker of the House declares that the US has “the best healthcare system in the world,””
    We do. It’s in Rochester Minnesota, nick named “Med City”, rated the best health care in the world. There is a international airport, and patients arrive from everywhere.
    It’s a unusual city. 95% graduated High School, 67% have Bachelors Degree or better, 2% unemployment
    and no homeless. -30 F in winter and corn has been seen in the area.
    I voted by accident and could not remove it . However I have unconditional positive self regard so left it a upvote.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Ha ha, Blueskies, exception duly and happily noted. I myself am a beneficiary of Rochester’s superb healthcare, though I was too young at the time to appreciate it. Thanks for the hometown shoutout.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] and , with both expectations being over the same noise terms. This is like the famous Lake Wobegon syndrome. What it indicates is the need for care in where and how to apply these error […]

  2. […] outrageous. By 2002, it was 281:1 and in 2012 it surged to 354:1. Under the spell of the “Lake Wobegon syndrome” where everyone believes their kids are above average, executive compensation committees cultivate […]

  3. […] don’t like to be graded on the bell curve (or any other curve except for Lake Wobegon’s) — we know that from the Microsoft experience. But Yahoo is struggling with what some say is […]

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