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 the Wobegon effect intervenes between our perception of ourselves and reality.
Lake Wobegon is a fictional city inhabited by very particular characters because all the women are strong, the men are handsome and the children are smarter than the average. This city, created by writer and humorist Garrison Keillor, gave its name to the “Wobegon” effect, a prejudice of superiority also known as illusory superiority.
What is the Wobegon effect?
It was 1976 when the College Board provided one of the most comprehensive samples of superiority bias. Of the millions of students who took the SAT exam, 70% believed they were above average, which was, statistically, impossible.
A year later, psychologist Patricia Cross discovered that over time this illusory superiority can worsen. By interviewing professors at the University of Nebraska, he found that 94% thought their teaching skills were 25% higher.
Therefore, the Wobegon effect would be the tendency to think that we are better than others, to position ourselves above the average, believing that we have more positive traits, qualities and abilities while minimizing the negative ones.
Writer Kathryn Schulz perfectly described this bias of superiority at the time of self-assessment: “Many of us go through life assuming that we are fundamentally right, pretty much all the time, basically about everything: our political and intellectual beliefs, our religious beliefs and moral, the judgment we give of other people, our memories, our understanding of the facts… Even if when we stop to think about it it seems absurd, our natural state seems to subconsciously assume that we are almost omniscient ”.
In fact, the Wobegon effect extends to all spheres of life. Nothing escapes its influence. We can think that we are more sincere, intelligent, determined and generous than others.
This bias of superiority can even extend to relationships. In 1991, psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk discovered that most people thought their relationship was better than that of others.
A bias resistant to evidence
The Wobegon effect is a particularly resistant bias. In fact, we sometimes refuse to open our eyes even to the evidence that we may not be as good or intelligent as we assume.
In 1965, psychologists Preston and Harris interviewed 50 drivers hospitalized after a car accident, 34 of whom were responsible for the same, according to police records. They also interviewed 50 drivers with an immaculate driving experience. They found that the drivers of both groups thought their driving skills were above average, even those who had caused the accident.
It is as if we are forming an image of ourselves set in stone that is very difficult to change, even in the face of the strongest evidence that this is not the case. In fact, neuroscientists at the University of Texas have discovered that there is a neural model that supports this self-assessment bias and makes us judge our personalities more positive and better than that of others.
Interestingly, they also found that mental stress increases this type of judgment. In other words, the more stressed we are, the greater the tendency to reinforce our belief that we are superior. This indicates that this resistance actually acts as a defense mechanism to protect our self-esteem.
When we face situations that are difficult to manage and tune into with the image we have of ourselves, we can respond by closing our eyes to the evidence so as not to feel so bad. This mechanism in itself is not negative because it can give us the time we need to process what has happened and change the image we have of ourselves to make it more realistic.
The problem begins when we cling to that illusory superiority and refuse to acknowledge mistakes and flaws. In that case, the most affected will be ourselves.
Where does the prejudice of superiority arise?
We grow up in a society that tells us from an early age that we are "special" and we are often praised for our skills rather than our achievements and efforts. This sets the stage for forming a distorted image of our merits, our way of thinking or our values and abilities.
The logical thing is that as we mature we develop a more realistic perspective on our abilities and are aware of our limitations and shortcomings. But that's not always the case. Sometimes the prejudice of superiority takes root.
In fact, 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 skills, so that when we compare ourselves to others, we feel better. It's normal. The problem is that sometimes the ego can play tricks, prompting us to place more importance on our abilities, characteristics and behaviors than those of others.
For example, if we are more sociable than the average, we will have a tendency to think that sociability is a very important trait and we will overestimate its role in life. It is also likely that, although we are honest, we will exaggerate our level of honesty when comparing ourselves with others.
Consequently, we will believe that, in general, we are above average because we have developed at the highest levels those characteristics that "really make a difference" in life.
A study conducted at Tel Aviv University revealed that when we compare ourselves to others, we do not use the normative standard of the group, 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' themselves in the evaluation of their abilities and 'adapt' insufficiently so as not to take into account the abilities of the comparison group". In other words, we evaluate ourselves from a deeply self-centered perspective.
More illusory superiority, less growth
The damage the Wobegon effect can cause far outweighs any benefit it brings us.
People with this bias may come to think that their ideas are the only valid ones. And because they also believe that they are smarter than average, they end up not feeling anything that doesn't fit their conception of the world. This attitude limits them because it prevents them from opening up to other concepts and possibilities.
In the long run, they become rigid, self-centered and intolerant people who do not listen to others, but cling to their dogmas and ways of thinking. They turn off critical thinking that allows them to do an exercise in sincere introspection, so they end up making bad decisions.
A study conducted at the University of Sheffield concluded that we do not escape the Wobegon effect even when we are sick. These researchers asked participants to estimate how often they and their peers engaged in healthy and unhealthy behaviors. People have reported engaging in healthy behaviors more often than average.
Researchers at the University of Ohio found that many terminally ill cancer patients thought they would exceed expectations. The problem, according to these psychologists, is that this trust and hope often made him “choose an ineffective and debilitating treatment. Rather than prolonging life, these treatments significantly reduce patients' quality of life and weaken their ability and that of their families to prepare for their death. "
Friedrich Nietzsche referred to people trapped in the Wobegon effect as "bildungsphilisters". By this he meant those who boast of their knowledge, experience and skills, even if in reality these are very limited because they are based on self-complacent research.
And this is precisely one of the keys to limiting the prejudice of superiority: developing an attitude of defiance towards oneself. Instead of being satisfied and believing that we are above average, we should try to keep growing, challenging our beliefs, values and our way of thinking.
For this we must learn to calm the ego in order to bring out the best version of ourselves. Being aware that the prejudice of superiority ends by rewarding ignorance, a motivated ignorance from which it would be better to escape.