The Lake Wobegon Effect

In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

There is a cognitive bias (called self-enhancement bias) named after this fictional town:

The Lake Wobegon effect is a natural tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities and see oneself as better than others. Research psychologists refer to this tendency as self-enhancement bias and have found evidence for its existence in many domains. Most of us think we’re funnier, smarter, warmer, more honest, or more conscientious than we really are. (via Psychology Today)

In Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness, we’re introduced to how this bias can affect our happiness (beyond the obvious self-delusion).

Gilbert concludes that one key to happiness is using others’ experiences as a surrogate for our own. When we’re making a life-altering decision, we can look into our own future by interviewing others that have made that decision and have lived it out.

Unfortunately for us, we humans have a natural tendency to avoid seeking out this data from surrogates. Why do we do this?

What makes us think we’re so darned special? Three things, at least. First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs.

The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in well with our peers, but we don’t want to fit in too well.

The third reason why we tend to overestimate our uniqueness is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness—that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.

individual similarities are an inconspicuous backdrop against which a small number of relatively minor individual differences stand out in bold relief. Because we spend so much time searching for, attending to, thinking about, and remembering these differences, we tend to overestimate their magnitude and frequency, and thus end up thinking of people as more varied than they actually are.

Our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates.

because we don’t realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.

The antidote is the observation of others and the trust that they are more similar to us than our intuition is telling us.

What’s so ironic about this predicament is that the information we need to make accurate predictions of our emotional futures is right under our noses, but we don’t seem to recognize its aroma. It doesn’t always make sense to heed what people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances.