Monday, July 06, 2009

July 6: Lake Wobegon Day

Today is the anniversary of the first broadcast of the radio show the Prairie Home Companion. The show was conceived by Garrison Keillor, who has hosted the variety show modeled after the Grand Ole Opry since its premier in 1974. Today’s Keillor’s show is broadcast over 580 public radio stations and has an audience of over 4 million.

In addition to music and commercials for imaginary products, each week’s show features a monologue by Keillor about his mythical hometown Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Each monologue begins the same: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” but the stories that Keillor tells about the colorful Lake Wobegon residents are always different. Keillor’s colorful descriptions, humor, and realistic insights into the human condition bring his characters to life and bring listeners back each week.

In addition to using the same opening, Keillor also uses a stock concluding line each week for his monologue: “That’s the news for Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average.”

It’s the last part of Keillor’s concluding line, “all the children are above-average,” that has captured the imagination of sociologists who have adopted Keillor's fictional town in what they call the Lake Wobegon Effect. The Lake Wobegon Effect is the tendency for groups of people to overestimate their achievements and competence in relation to other groups.

The term entered the lexicon in 1987 when Dr. John Cannel published a study that revealed that every state claimed that their students’ test scores where above the national average. This humorous and absurd finding became publicized as the Lake Wobegon Effect. The fictional town in Minnesota became a metaphor of a state-wide phenomenon.

Often we think of metaphor as the exclusive tool of poets. The fact is, however, every good communicator understands and uses metaphor to connect the known to the unknown. Scientists, business people, psychologists, sociologists, and doctors all turn to metaphor to communicate their ideas, theories, and discoveries.

This is done so frequently that there is an entire book of these metaphors called The Babinski Reflex. The author, Phillip Goldberg, calls them metaffects:

“. . . a recognized effect, law, or principle whose official meaning can be transferred to another context. The Babinski Reflex, for example, is a term describing an automatic response in the foot of an infant, thought to be a vestige of our primate ancestry. As such, it resonates metaphorically with certain forms of adult behavior that might be considered primitive or infantile . . . .” (1).

Today’s Challenge: Metaphors Be With You
See if you can match each Effect below with its correct definition from Phillip Goldberg’s book, The Babinski Reflex.

Cocktail Party Effect
Eureka Effect
Butterfly Effect
The False Consensus Effect
Hawthorne Effect
Boomerang Effect
Bandwagon Effect
Barnum Effect

1. The effect of workers becoming more productive after being signaled out or made to feel that they are special.

2. The phenomenon in which attempts to change attitudes in a particular direction produce shifts in the direction opposite that intended.

3. The tendency of some people to withhold their opinions until they know the majority’s view, at which time they merrily announce that they feel exactly the way almost everyone else does.

4. The idea that small changes can become magnified over the course of a subsequent chain of events and culminate in a major, large-scale happening.

5. The tendency of people to accept as accurate, for them personally, a generalized statement (especially a flattering one) that might in fact characterize just about anyone.

6. The rejection of unwanted messages by the senses in favor of more pertinent or interesting information.

7. The tendency of a solution of a problem to come when not directly involved in trying to solve it.

8. The tendency for people to believe that their own desires, beliefs, and even personal problems are shared by the majority (1).

Quote of the Day:
Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people. –Garrison Keillor

Answers: 1. Hawthorne Effect 2. Boomerang Effect 3. Bandwagon Effect 4. Butterfly Effect5. Barnum Effect 6. Cocktail Party Effect 7. Eureka Effect 8. False Consensus Effect

1 - Goldberg, Phillip. The Babinski Reflex: and 70 Other Useful and Amusing Metaphors from Science, Psychology, Business, Sports ... and Everyday Life. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.