You’re Not That Great (aka How to Stay Grounded)

“That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” 1

That’s how Garrison Keillor ended his radio show, called Prarie Home Companion, for over 42 years. 2 Lake Wobegon was a fictional setting Keillor created for the show, but his famous send off line has taken on a new meaning.

Photo credit: Cover of Lake Wobegon audiobook by Keillor

“The Lake Wobegon effect” goes by many names (Better-Than-Average Effect, Superiority Illusion, etc) describes a motivational bias in which we tend to view ourselves favorably when compared to others. It has been easily illustrated in studies from driving skill to intelligence. In a YouGov study, 55% of Americans think they’re smarter than the average American. A study of New Zealand drivers showed that the average driver thought they drove slower than 85-90% of their companions.

Both of these statements can’t be true. The average is the average for a reason, right? Only half of us can be above average. That’s how statistics work.

Despite our best intentions, we view ourselves favorably when compared to others whether that’s inflating our own self-perception or degrading the perception of others in our own minds.

Why does this happen? More importantly, what can we do about it?

Breaking Down the “Better-Than-Average” Effect

The Better-Than-Average effect exists for many reasons, but we’re going to dig into two, one based on anatomy and another based on psychology. First, let’s go a bit into the scientific weeds and understand some anatomy.

Anatomical Explanation

A few researchers set out to nail down brain networks responsible for the Better-Than-Average effect. We’re going to skim over the details, but I suggest you read through this Scientific American article titled “The Superiority Illusion” that covers the experiment in-depth.

First, we need to quickly cover five bits of brain anatomy.

  1. The prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher mental processes like memory and self-perception.
  2. The striatum, which is involved with feelings of reward.
  3. The fronto-striatal circuit, which connects the prefrontal cortex and the striatum.
  4. Dopamine, which you’ve probably heard of before. For our simplistic purposes, it’s a chemical hormone that controls the pleasure centers of the brain; in fact, it’s often released in anticipation of pleasure actually (further reading).
  5. D2 receptors, which line the fronto-striatal circuit. D2-type receptors are inhibitory meaning they blunt activity.

We’re going to focus in on two parts of the brain—the prefrontal cortex and striatum. Those two parts are connected by the fronto-striatal circuit, which is lined with these little receptors for Dopamine.

Enough with the anatomy; let’s dig into the results.

The researchers asked 24 subjects how they would rate themselves across 52 personality traits when compared with their peers. This gave the researchers a superiority score for each participant.

They then ran a series of brain images and found that a decrease in connectivity between the fronto-striatal circuit was correlated with an increased superiority illusion.

Photo Credit: Study “Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine” from pnas.org. This is depicting the effect of D2 receptors on the superiority illusion.

Here’s the main takeaway summed up from Scientific American:

So the more dopamine you have, the bigger of a decrease in connectivity, and the better the view of yourself. Conversely, the less dopamine, the less inhibition and a stronger connection, and the more realistic your appraisal of your own averageness.

We can sum it up in two bullet points:

  • More dopamine -> hits D2 receptors -> weakens fronto-striatal connection -> “I’m awesome!”
  • Less dopamine -> hits fewer D2 receptors -> stronger fronto-striatal connection -> “I’m below average!”

It’s important to realize that these are just correlations, not causations. Still, it’s interesting to see where these high view of oneself comes from. This becomes even more interesting when you consider brain scans in depressed individuals shows more connectivity along the fronto-striatal connection.

Psychological Explanation

We’ve talked before about Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s book about the mind and decision making based largely on his work with fellow researcher Amos Tversky. Kahneman lays out two distinct “modes” in the brain—System 1 and System 2. The former is automatic, simple, and fast. The latter is deliberate and effortful.

In the face of a difficult question, System 1 often substitutes in an easy question and answers that instead. According to Kahneman, this is the basis for nearly all heuristics. It’s why we’re able to generate intuitive answers to otherwise complex problems. For example, take the following question from the book:

Are you a good driver?

That’s easy; you would probably say yes after thinking briefly (and maybe unconsciously) about the number of wrecks you have been involved with.

Now, consider a related question:

Are you better than average as a driver?

This is nearly impossible. There isn’t an easy mental model of “average” for this question unless you somehow knew the average driving statistics around wrecks and speeding tickets.

According to the substitution effect, we answer the easy, related question (“Are you a good driver?”) instead of the impossible one (“Are you better than the average driver?”). You’ll compare yourself to the average “without ever thinking about the average.” (p. 260)

The evidence for the cognitive interpretation of the above-average effect is that when people are asked about a task they find difficult (for many of us this could be “Are you better than average in starting conversations with strangers?”), they readily rate themselves as below average.

Thinking Fast and Slow, p. 260

We’re left with an anatomical and a psychological explanation for the Better-Than-Average effect. Perhaps more important than why it happens, let’s look at what we can do about it.

Combatting the Better-Than-Average Effect: How to Stay Grounded

Above, we established some reasons why the Better-Than-Average Effect exists. Why on earth would we want to blunt that effect? Simple: We need to keep growing and learning! It’s hard to do that when you think you’re awesome and know everything. Epictetus famously quipped 3:

What is the first business of him who philosophizes? To throw away self-conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks that he knows.

Here are some tactics for staying humble and avoiding self-conceit.

Pick a mentor and recalibrate.

Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.

– Seneca, Letters From a Stoic (source)

Many years ago, waves of people were walking around with WWJD bracelets wrapped around their wrists with a constant reminder to ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” You don’t have to wear a bracelet to experience the same benefit.

Picking a good mentor is akin to recalibrating your scoresheet and resetting your internal compass. “Better Than Average” isn’t the goal. The goal is mastery. If you select the right mentors to surround yourself with, you’ll realize you still have a ways to go.

By the way, this approach (establishing a specific individual to compare yourself against) has shown to improve the Better-Than-Average effect:

…people were less biased when they compared themselves with an individuated target than when they compared themselves with a nonindividuated target, namely, the average college student. (source)

Here are some mentors I look to for recalibrating my own internal scorecard. For writing, I look to Ryan Holiday, Seth Godin, James Clear, and Belle Beth Cooper to name a few. For leadership, I look to Bill Walsh, Sheryl Sandberg, and Lara Hogan among many others.

Don’t compare yourself against the “average.” Compare yourself against a higher standard, a set of mentors and experts in your field. Then, you’ll identify the real gap you need to close.

Assume you’re worse than you think.

Service in this country is so bad that you can offer above average service and still sink. By definition, the odds are that you’re average. Assume your service is bad. It can’t hurt, and it will force you to improve.

Selling the Invisible, p. 6

I love that line from Selling the Invisible. “By definition, the odds are that you’re average.”

Let’s look at the effects of assuming we’re above average:

  • We get complacent. We stop looking at ways to improve.
  • We mentally (or verbally) degrade the work of others.
  • We place the blame on others when things don’t go our way.

Now, let’s look at the effects of assuming you’re average:

  • We’re constantly looking for ways to improve, learning from others and improving our craft.
  • We’re receptive to feedback.
  • We can take control of the situation instead of letting an external third party be the judge of success.

This isn’t about self-deprectating verbiage. It’s about realizing the work you do could be better, being open to feedback, and working hard to improve.

Change your base assumptions. Instead of assuming you’re the best in your field, assume you’re average. Then, continuously work to improve.

Let input, not output, dictate your success.

The Stoics are saying, “Not only are you going to be happier if you can make the distinction between what you can change and can’t change but if you focus your energy exclusively on what you can change, you’re going to be a lot more productive and effective as well.”

– Ryan Holiday (source)

There are two ways we can validate our success. One is external. We can rely on others to validate how well we’re doing (money, sales, likes, etc). The other is internal. We can build our own internal scorecard to measure ourselves against and evaluate our input, not the external result of our work.

In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday writes, “A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.” If you let external metrics validate your success, it’s easy to get carried away. Money, fame, attention…they’re enticing and intoxicating. Still, we’re not in complete control over those metrics.

Internal metrics would be:

  • Is this the best work I can produce?
  • Did I give this my best effort?
  • Am I proud of this?
  • Did I enjoy the process of building/making/doing this?

Those internal metrics are harder to satisfy. Likes can be bought. Pride is earned through doing the work.

Don’t let external factors dictate your success. Rely on internal metrics that you have full control over.

***

Staying grounded and humble requires constant work. It’s not something we can fix and forget about forever.


  1. I first came across the Lake Wobegon effect in Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing on p. 6. 
  2. You can still listen to full episodes of the show here
  3.  The Discourses, Book II, ch. 17. (full text available free here

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