According to “A Prairie Home Companion,” Lake Wobegon is a small (fictional) town in Minnesota where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” It’s a sentiment everyone is familiar with: In the eyes of their parents, a child is always cuter, funnier, and brighter than average.
But it’s impossible that this is true of all children, isn’t it? In order for one child to be cuter than average, there would have to be others that aren’t. People sometimes speak of the “Lake Wobegon effect” (also known as “illusory superiority”), according to which a large majority of the population judges itself to be above average for a given quality. This effect can reach nearly comical heights. In 1975, a questionnaire was distributed to 600 professors at the University of Nebraska, asking them, among other things, to evaluate their pedagogical abilities; 94 percent said that they were above average. And students weren’t to be outdone. Around the same time, a massive survey asked a million American high school students to evaluate their leadership qualities: Only 2 percent judged themselves to be below average.
Drivers also seem to fall victim to the Lake Wobegon effect. Numerous investigations have suggested both that the vast majority of them think they drive better than average and that they largely overestimate themselves. These investigations are generally based on small samples of less than 200 people, but their accumulated data suggest that the phenomenon is real.