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The Lake Wobegon Effect

April 1, 2013 | 13 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,

In Wikipedia, "the Lake Wobegon effect" is defined as "a natural human tendency to overestimate one's capabilities, [and it] is named after the town. The characterization of the fictional location, where 'all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,' has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others."

But as I've listened to your stories over the years, I've come away with a different take. You speak often of how shy the residents are and how little they toot their own horns. I grew up among older Norwegians and Swedes who, rather than overestimating their capabilities, often downplay them and turn the conversation in another direction. If anything, they indulge in a little false modesty in order to avoid seeming to boast.

Have I just misunderstood at least part of the theme all these years?


Gary Engstrand


You're right about the reticence of Wobegonians in keeping with their Scandinavian heritage ("Don't think you're somebody") and their genuine modesty and their tendency to step away from any sort of praise. I share that tendency and I try to understand it because at times it seems rude of me -- if someone says "That was a good show" and I hurry to point out what was wrong with it. (And it is rude. And I've learned to say, "Thank you" and shut up.) I was brought up to be modest, though I secretly entertained delusions of grandeur, imagined being heroic, saving lives, winning games, setting world records. In a small town such as Lake Wobegon, the social fabric of the community is so important that the members are careful to avoid attracting too much attention that might turn into envy. Your life might depend on your neighbors and if you get a reputation as someone High and Mighty, people might not come to your aid as readily as they ought to, figuring that you're much too capable to need their help. Look at the rich and famous who have died in stupid accidents because people nearby didn't dare warn them. I think of my dear friend Corinne, a brilliant teacher, an irrepressible lefty, a quick wit, a staunch friend, whose friends didn't recognize the depth of her depression -- because she was, after all, Corinne -- and then she killed herself. So the "Lake Wobegon effect" is a bunch of hogwash where Lake Wobegon is concerned. And the slogan about all the women and all the men and all the children is so obviously not about overestimation -- when you say that all the children are above-average, you are saying that tests and grades and intellectual measurement are not, in the end, so important. If everybody is above average, then you have junked the idea of averages. That "pervasive human tendency to overestimate one's achievements" is found in New York and Los Angeles and in Wikipedia, but it doesn't have anything to do with the Little Town That Time Forgot.


Wobegon, in Effect

In Lake Wobegon,
We're circumspect,
Prefer to be anon -
Do our deed,
And then we're gone.

But the Wobegon Effect
is seeing oneself
Through Rose-Colored Glasses -
There's another name for that:
We call them asses!

Here in Missouri, there is a similar effect too. Missouri being a agricultural state with hillbilly overtones, Lutherans and Catholics in the northern half, protestants in the southern half. To have too much pride is seen as sinful and unwarranted here. People who boast are not ever taken the least bit serious, just seen as being a cocky ass. In Kansas their a little bit more tolerant of boastfulness. It seems with the advent of reality shows and peoples personal pages ie: facebook, myspace, etc, people are much more boastful about everyday mundane things in their empty lives.

The Lake Wobegone effect is alive and well. It's not an insult. It's what we call here in the rural east, "Provincial". As long as one never leaves the borders of one's county one can think that one is superior. The Valedictorians that go away to the fancy schools learn quickly that they are just average and their lesser class mates were slow. Telling lazy uninspired kids that they are above average does a disservice to the children and to the system of education that perpetuates this.

I have always understood "everyone is above average" as something compared to the rest of the nation or the larger geography in which it resides.

Its not graded on a local curve so to speak. With any school in small-town USA, its possible for every kid in that school to be a "B" student.

This is a fictional town, folks. Setting the tone allows for an idealized, fairy-tale-ish, nostalgic, utopian dream-like appreciation and love. I am a little shocked by the negativity in some of these responses.
"Provincial" does not mean "empty", "mundane","lazy", "uninspired", "boastful", "proud", or "slow".
Where is your basic love for humanity, wherever people are struggling to live and thrive,however flawed and sad they may be? Mr. Keillor has this love in spades.

I remember a different explanation from listening to the show years ago. Since it's the "news" from Lake Wobegon, those listening are those who have moved away and are hearing about all the folks they once knew.

You always remember your hometown with a greater sense or overestimation of what it really was. When you go back to your hometown you remember how things were and every little thing folks have changed... Even if they took down that old barn and replaced it with a brand new one that looks beautiful, it's just not the same. People should realize that you want it to look just the way it did.

Commenting that the children are above average never meant anything very serious or complex to me. I think of it as a sign of positive encouragement or generating a "can do" attitude to someone who might be shy or unrealistically under-confident as they moved forward to encounter the larger world outside the beginnings. I heard it as more of a "you've got what it takes" to either do the job or meet some degree of success....or at the very least to never be embarrassed of where you came from. We all may tell our children that the are above average to let them know that the can manage their lives with hard work and a self confident attitude.

here in the blue ridge mountains, if i went up to someone and said i had the lake wobegone effect, that someone would probably say, "why, bless your heart!" and invite me in for coffee or something. i agree with all of you -- and, bless your hearts!

Amen, Isabel!

So perfectly said; I was beginning to glaze over reading the responses,
Thinking what is wrong with the hearing on these folks!
Garrison is sunshine in a gloomy world of “too-too”!!
Just ENJOY him and the talent of the show.

Most Sincerely!

So, here is the dilemma, as Brendon has pointed out. As we move away, or at least move on, we want what WAS to stay exactly the same. Even though I've gone forward in many ways, I still want my 10th grade math teacher, Miss Joseph, to be teaching at Shorewood High School, though I realize I'm being foolish.

We need a dual reality invented -- one, that moves with us, and one, that we can dial back to that math class, or to the time of my crush on the cute girl in fifth grade, or to the day before Pearl Harbor Day so I could warn President Roosevelt.

Where's Einstein now that we need him? He, of all people, was above average.

I agree with Isabel & Carole to this degree: I agree that Wikipedia has it all wrong. I love the small towns where I've lived. For the most part people are just who they are, 'warts & all', and are content to be pleasant with one another.

Over-analyzing everything is so tiresome, many substitute their opinions as truth and fight others who disagree. That's not entertainment or news for that matter! PHC & Lake Woebegon are a refreshing respite from all that. I hope it stays that way!

Lake Wobegon is equal to Brigadoon's miraculous village philosophy. I.e., rising every 100 years for a day so Brigadoon, as Lake Wobegon, would never be changed by the outside world. Kudos Garrison. Keep me in Brigadoon, each and every broadcast.
Zinc LaDouce
62 Mary Street
Auburn, NY 13021

I like the "Brigadoon" comparison,After growing
up in a Big City,Where everything is Hurry,get this done, Hurry, Get that done, Work all the time make as much money as you can,Anyway you can.
It's nice just to sit back and picture a place where people are friendlier, ,Nobody hates anybody.
it's just a Kinder And Gentler place I find it very relaxing,Just to visit there for the short
we are allowed to be there.

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