The Lake Wobegon Effect
Lake Wobegon is a mythical town in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor created this fiction place that is a shorthand expression for our human tendency to overestimate our achievements, talent, intelligence and skills in comparison with others. The thing to bear in mind is that in Lake Wobegon everyone living there is persuaded that the women are compassionate, strong, the men brilliant and good, the children obedient and outstanding. Above all, it is special as “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” To the residents of Lake Wobegon, these shared views aren’t an overestimation of their capabilities but represent the absolute true picture of the people living in that place.
Garrison Keillor created this fictional place and its citizens entertained and informed radio listeners on NPR. It touched upon a deep longing to be part of a community in a more simple, calm and happy time. To suspend disbelief is the first rule for a fiction writer. It is also a rule shared by politicians and state officials. To examine Lake Wobegon thinking helps us to understand what entertains us can also carry the seed of our worst nightmare.
It is difficult to persuade people to accept an opinion, point of view or fact that doesn’t confirm what they believe to be true or to motivate them to act as if persuaded. Whether it is selling a new cellphone or tropical holiday to Thailand, business people use marketing to create a comfort zone, which is non-threatening, and then make the product or service irresistible to their happiness. Billions of dollars are spent to persuade you to do something, buy something, believe in one thing and reject another; join a community, which offers you status and enhanced reputation because you share their view.
The persuasion may be an appeal to authority such as a holy book, a national tradition, a cultural artifact such as music. The Taylor Swifts, Brad Pitts, Jon Stewarts persuade and shape the attitudes, values and desires of their fans.
To persuade another person is an art. It takes interpersonal skill, the ability to present facts and arguments that are appealing. And what is appealing? In our late capitalist age, it is usually a product or service or set of policies or beliefs that we believe make our life more pleasant, happy, fulfilled, and pleasurable. Whether our life is actually better is another matter. We allow ourselves to be persuaded by others mainly because we wish to belong and be accepted by our social group, our family, our circle of friends, those we work with. We crave their admiration and respect and our lives are co-dependent of these people. We need them to co-operate with us, and we need to co-operate with them. In other words, behind our reciprocity, we run our lives on a software program labeled—persuasion.
The question arises: why is it so hard to persuade others about the merits and values of things or beliefs? This begs the question who we are trying to persuade. Most of the time we find ourselves having to make a case to someone who doesn’t share our view, say on climate change or freedom of speech or the value of Rolex watch compared to one bought from a street vendor or whether downloading illegal copies of a book is wrong. We have fundamental disagreements about such issues, products, policies, as we disagree over what is true, what is an illusion, and what direction any policy from education to police reform should take.
Persuasion isn’t always based on a hedonistic rainbow at the end of the pitch to sell a political candidate, laundry soap, wine, films or books; it can also be an appeal to values such as family, religion, morality, ethics, or fashion. We can argue from authority such as the Koran or the Bible, or we can argue from statistical data or the results of tests, polls, measuring devices, or observations where the results can be repeated and confirmed.
We click on ‘like’ when we signal our solidarity with a posting from one of our Facebook friends. The digital world has given us the ability to invent and inhabit our own Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” And if we make a mistake and befriend someone who doesn’t share that illusion, where he or she doesn’t belong and is sent into exile by the act of ‘defriending.’ Amongst friends the remedy is exclusion. The possibility of being ostracized remains a powerful punishment.
Little in the private relations matches the range and severity of penalties available to officials in the public sector. Governments have a monopoly of force and they can use weapons to make people afraid to challenge their authority, policies, and legitimacy. The state always has the ‘intimidation’ card up its sleeve if persuading you to stop criticizing their administration of Lake Wobegon. The police or army can force you to do something or to shut up, even though you would freely choose not to do so. Governments are always trying to cobble together Lake Wobegon and maintain the illusion that all of its citizens are happy together. It is a wonder, even after the abysmal history of past failed experiments at utopia, that such new attempts are launched, and the state officials believe it will be different this time.
The main feature of a Lake Wobegon culture and way of thinking is the fear of critical thinking by its citizens. If citizens can freely discuss among themselves the role of government, the limitations on power, and to set an agenda of priorities and policies. Those at the top of the political chain hate the idea of limitations, criticism, and dissent. When the town of 800 is scaled to cities with millions, the diversity of voices and conflicting beliefs and goals make the idealistic ways of behaving outdated. There lies the problem. The intimidation, use of coercion, and threats follows as the citizens start a public debate as to why Lake Wobegon is a mythical place. Officials who love Lake Wobegon do not take kindly to anyone who criticize the object of their love. It’s not so much a restriction of free speech, but their way to protect their beloved town and its good people. If that means sacrificing critical thinking, all right minded people would agree that this is a small cost to maintain Lake Wobegon as the ideal place where for all good, beautiful and decent people live in happiness. Critical thinking is a shorthand expression for the human capacity to process change—technological, political, social or economic. It is also a technique for testing statements, theories, and premises. Our brain operating system is designed to detect risks, opportunities, and inconsistencies. We update our view of the world as it changes before our eyes. The question that is never settled without anger, hate and blood is who should be in charge of making the changes.
Non-critical thinking is when you automatically accept what an official, a celebrity, a book or slogan says as true and legitimate. A Lake Wobegon culture works only when the citizens are a very small group of non-critical thinkers living in a changeless world. The more people you have who use critical thinking to assess the effectiveness, fairness, and justice of systems and networks, the more likely you will have a lively public debate. The tension is between those who firmly believe that Lake Wobegon and all official versions of the place are perfectly ordered and fair and only troublemakers and discontents argue for the need for updates that take into account the nature and scope of change. Change versus non-change is a dangerous tightrope to walk. Some people fall off; others are pushed off. That’s the nasty bit that lies behind the curtain of the stage where Lake Wobegon is played out.
The heart of any human social, political or economic network requires a functioning system of co-operation. Without such a system, nothing works, and chaos and instability fill the void. The more rapid the technological change the more the change will destabilize the basis of co-operation. There is little time for consolidation as all energy is focused on the constant rebuilding of consensus. Whether it is Google driverless cars, or TV sets that record your conversations, the adaptation to new limitations to free will, privacy, and the growth of private and government surveillance requires our critical thinking.
We seek new and better ways to co-operate with each other. But co-operation takes resources, time, energy and good will—all of which appear to have been depleted in most places, including Thailand. We also seek new and better ways to defeat those who think differently from us. Both impulses, to co-operate and to defeat, usually results in people taking sides and doing whatever is needed to justify the actions of their side. This isn’t critical thinking. This is partisan posturing.
The problem is many people argue in favour of critical thinking but in reality most people fear it. They want their side to prevail and their thinking is devoted to making that happen. If we truly embraced critical thinking, we’d accept the implicit rate of change has accelerated and many of the old truths have been refuted. It is time to let them go. We didn’t evolve to be critical thinkers. Everything about our past shows it wasn’t very important. We lived, worked and died in an environment where change was quite slow. We could absorb the changes over hundreds of generations and make adjustment.
That time is gone. Lake Wobegon never existed except in our imaginations. We need to face the reality that we can’t return to the past. We live in a time of highly accelerated technological change and even the best minds employing critical thinking are finding themselves exhausted, unable to process fast enough before the next disruption occurs.