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If we were all as good and smart as we think we are, the world would be an infinitely better place. The problem is that between our self-perception and reality mediates the Wobegon effect.
Lake Wobegon is a fictional town inhabited by very peculiar characters since all women are strong, all men are handsome and all children are smarter than average. This city, created by writer and humorist Garrison Keillor, gave its name to the “Wobegon Effect”, a superiority bias also known as illusory superiority.
What is the Wobegon Effect?
It was 1976 when the College Board provided one of the largest samples of superiority bias. Of the million students who took the SAT exam, 70% believed that they were above average, something that, statistically, was impossible.
A year later the psychologist Patricia Cross found that with the passage of time this illusory superiority can worsen. When interviewing professors from the University of Nebraska, she found that 94% thought their teaching skills were in the top 25%.
Therefore, the Wobegon effect would be a tendency to think that we are better than the others, to position ourselves above the average, believing that we have more positive traits, qualities and abilities and minimizing the negative ones.
Writer Kathryn Schulz perfectly described this bias in our self-assessment: “Many of us spend our lives assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, basically in everything: our political and intellectual convictions, our religious beliefs and morals, the evaluation we make of other people, our memories, our understanding of the facts… Although when we stop to think about it it is absurd, our stationary state seems to be unconsciously assuming that we are almost omniscient”.
In fact, the Wobegon Effect extends to all spheres of life. Nothing escapes its influence. We may think that we are more sincere, intelligent, determined and generous than the others.
That superiority bias can even extend to our relationships. In 1991, psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk found that most people thought that their relationship was better than that of the others.
The Wobegon Effect is a particularly tough bias. In fact, sometimes we refuse to open our eyes even in the face of the evidence that shows that we may not be as good or smart as we suppose.
In 1965, psychologists Preston and Harris interviewed 50 drivers hospitalized for having had a traffic accident, 34 of whom had been responsible for it, according to police records. They also interviewed 50 drivers with an immaculate driving record. They found that drivers in both groups thought their driving skills were above average, even those who caused the accident.
It is as if we form an image of ourselves carved in stone that is very difficult to change, even in the face of the most obvious evidence that this is not the case. In fact, neuroscientists at the University of Texas found that there is a neural pattern that supports this self-evaluation bias and makes us judge our personality as more positive and better than that of others.
Interestingly, they also found that mental burden increases this type of judgment. In other words, the more we are overwhelmed, the greater the tendency to reinforce the belief in our superiority. This indicates that this resistance actually acts as a defense mechanism to protect our self-esteem.
When we face situations that are difficult for us to manage and fit in with the image we have of ourselves, we can respond by closing our eyes to evidence for not feeling so bad. This mechanism in itself is not negative since it can give us the time we need to process what happened and change our self-image to make it more realistic.
The problem begins when we cling to that illusory superiority and refuse to acknowledge defects and flaws. In that case, the most affected will be ourselves.
Where does the superiority bias come from?
We grow up in a society that tells us from childhood that we are “special” and we are often praised for our abilities, rather than our achievements and efforts. This lays the foundations to form a distorted image of our own merits, our way of thinking or our values and abilities.
The logical thing is that when we grow mature we develop a more realistic perspective of our capacities and we are aware of our limitations and defects. But it’s not always like this. Sometimes that superiority bias takes hold.
Actually, we all have a tendency to see ourselves in a positive light. When they ask us how we are, we will highlight our best qualities, values and competences, so that when we compare ourselves with others, we are better off. It is normal. The problem is that sometimes the ego can play tricks on us, prompting us to give more importance to our abilities, characteristics and behaviors than those of others.
For example, if we are really more sociable than the average, we will have the tendency to think that sociability is a very important characteristic and we will overestimate its role in life. It is also likely that although we are honest, we will exaggerate our degree of honesty when we compare ourselves with others.
As a result, we will believe that, overall, we are above average because we have developed at the highest level those characteristics that really “make a difference” in life.
In fact, a study carried out at Tel Aviv University revealed that when we compare ourselves with others, we do not use the group’s normative standard, but rather focus more on ourselves, which makes us believe that we are superior to the rest of the members.
Psychologist Justin Kruger found in his studies that “These biases suggest that people ‘anchor’ in their assessment of their own abilities and ‘adjust’ insufficiently in order to consider the abilities of the comparison group.” In other words, we evaluate ourselves from a deeply egocentric perspective.
The more illusory superiority, the less growth
The damage that the Wobegon Effect can cause usually far outweigh any benefit it brings.
People with this bias may think that their ideas are the only ones valid. And since they also believe that they are more intelligent than the average, they end up turning a deaf ear to everything that does not fit their conception of the world. That attitude limits them because it prevents them from opening up to other conceptions and possibilities.
In the long run, they end up becoming rigid, self-centered, and intolerant people who don’t listen to others, but cling to their dogmas and ways of thinking. They turn off critical thinking that allows them to do a sincere exercise of introspection, so it is common for them to end up making bad decisions.
A study done at the University of Sheffield concluded that we didn’t escape the Wobegon Effect even when we got sick. These researchers asked participants to estimate how often they and their peers engaged in healthy and unhealthy behaviors. People reported that they practiced healthy behaviors more often than average.
Ohio University researchers found that many terminal cancer patients thought they would exceed expectations. The problem, according to these psychologists, is that this trust and hope often made them “Choose an ineffective and debilitating treatment. Rather than primarily prolonging life, these treatments markedly decrease the quality of life of the patients and weaken their ability and that of their families to prepare for their deaths.”
Friedrich Nietzsche referred to people who get caught up in the Wobegon effect as “bildungsphilisters”. With this term he meant those who boast of their knowledge, experience and skills, although in reality these are very limited since they are based on a self-complacent search.
And that is precisely one of the keys to tying down the superiority bias: developing a challenging attitude towards oneself. Instead of being satisfied and believing that we are above average, we should try to keep growing, challenging our beliefs, values and ways of thinking.
For this we need to learn to calm the ego to bring out our best version, really. Being aware that the superiority bias ends up rewarding ignorance, a motivated ignorance from which it would be better to run away.
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