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Virtue and the Lake Wobegon Effect

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During the mid-1990s I spent a tour of duty as a Marine recruiter in southwestern Washington State. One of my primary tasks was to give talks at local high schools, but because many of the guidance counselors were not exactly pro-military, I was expected to give generic “motivational” speeches.

I soon discovered my idea of what constituted a motivational speech was not widely shared.

“Your parents and teachers have not been straight-forward with you,” I told the students in my first presentation. “You’re not really all that special. There are hundreds of thousands of kids just like you. And the fact is that you cannot be anything you want. Most of you don’t have the physical skills necessary to be a pro-athlete or the mental acuity to be a neurosurgeon. If you want to be successful in life you are going to choose a vocation that fits with your aptitude and abilities. And you’re going to have to compete with others who are smarter and more talented than you are. You don’t have to be the best and brightest, but you do need to be the hardest-working.”

Needless to say, that message wasn’t well received by the students. Having a dream is the most important thing in life, one young girl told me and asked why I wanted to crush her (wildly unrealistic) ambitions. Another student, a slight, bespectacled young man said that while there were no 5’9” centers currently playing in the NBA, he’d be the first because he “wanted it more than anything else in the world.”

But while I was taken aback by the cluelessness of the students, I was even more surprised by the reaction of the teachers. They made it clear that I would not be invited back for I had undermined their attempts to build the “self-esteem” of the kids. I asked if they really believed that Johnny was going to be a basketball star and that Susan was going to achieve her outlandish dreams of being a famous actress. Of course they didn’t, but they couldn’t understand why that would matter. They seemed to believe that while an inflated sense of self-worth wasn’t a sufficient condition for success, it was certainly a necessary one. Therefore they believed that it was their duty to make sure that as many of the kids as possible “believed in themselves.”

The teachers couldn’t recognize that they were setting their students up for a life of failure by instilling in them “illusory superiority”, a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is sometimes referred to as the Lake Wobegon Effect, named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Surveys such as the CIRP Freshman Survey have shown that the Lake Wobegon Effect has become increasingly more acute over the past several decades. Each year, hundreds of colleges and universities administer the survey to entering students during orientation or registration. Since 1966 roughly 9 million students have taken the survey and over the last four decades there’s been a steady rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence. But on the traits that are considered less invidualistic—co-operativeness, understanding others, and spirituality—the numbers either stayed at slightly decreased over the same period.

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A 2006 study found that students suffer from ‘ambition inflation’ as their increased ambitions accompany increasingly unrealistic expectations.

‘Since the 1960s and 1970s, when those expectations started to grow, there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression,’ [said psychologist Jean Twenge]. ‘There’s going to be a lot more people who don’t reach their goals.’

Twenge is the author of a separate study showing a 30 per cent increase towards narcissism in students since 1979.

Part of the problem is that as a society we put too much focus on expressing personality (“Discover and then be who you are.”) rather than on forming a virtuous character. Indeed, you will rarely hear the term “virtuous” used non-ironically nowadays. The term has an air of nineteenth-century Victorianism and implies that there are ways that people should and should not act that go beyond the most basic legal and ethical requirements. Virtue may have a quaint appeal if we’re watching Downtown Abbey, but we can’t really expect people to take virtue seriously today, can we?

I think not only that we can, but that we must. I also believe that many young people have a craving to be taught how to live virtuously. For many young men and women, military service appeals to them because it is one of the few environments in which they will not only be held to a higher standard of virtuous activity, but will be rewarded for it. For example, in both the Navy and the Marine Corps the “core virtues” to be embraced and embodied are “honor, courage, and commitment.” Not every sailor and Marine lives up to the standard, of course, but the fact that a standard even exists strikes many young people as a refreshing change. They want to be noble rather than narcissistic. They just aren’t sure how to become virtuous, and there are few areas in society to encourage such development.

Perhaps it’s time we change that. While we can’t control many of the influences over young people—such as the media and pop culture—we do have some influence over the mediating institutions, particularly family, school, and church. We can’t change society overnight, but with a little effort we can make being virtuous an acceptable “alternative lifestyle.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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