The “Better Than Average Effect”

by Susi on July 29, 2015

in Better than Average effect, dog fancy, Dogs, Lake Wobegon, Uncategorized

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It’s maddening to know someone who refuses to change their mind about an issue even when presented with evidence proving them wrong. Social psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance,” and as infuriating as it is for the rest of us, being wrong is so psychically uncomfortable for these people that they’ll avoid any situation that heightens the “disconnect” between their belief and evidence to the contrary. Some go further and seek out support among others who hold similar, equally erroneous beliefs. Though I’m only half kidding here, surely the collective noun for a group of cognitively dissonant people would have to be “PETA.”

Social psychologists are aware of another phenomenon that we as fanciers would recognize in several manifestations. Haven’t we all known someone who, for example, has an exaggerated opinion of how much he or she actually knows about dogs? Perhaps it’s the person who judges dogs entirely differently than what he actually breeds, himself, or the newbie who’s been “in” their breed for all of fifteen minutes but after a couple of wins in the ring, is now an expert.

The name for this social phenomenon is the “Better Than Average Effect,” or BTAE, and in reality, most of us exhibit this trait in varying degrees. In our heart of hearts, we tend to evaluate ourselves more positively than we evaluate other people by thinking that we are above normal in a variety of areas. Statistically, this is impossible because everyone can’t be better than average, but one Penn State research student, Sasha Thomas, found a group in which the “Better Than Average effect” appears in abundance: Dog owners.

Based on a survey Thomas developed for pet owners, she found that dog owners exhibit the “Better Than Average Effect” more so than cat owners. Thomas believes that through a kind of cognitive dissonance, dog owners psychologically believe they have a “one of a kind,” or better than average dog. If you ask me, this describes a lot of us who were smitten with our very first show dog and couldn’t understand why the dog didn’t win more.

Psychologists studying the BTAE (also known as the “Lake Wobegon Effect” after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where “all the children are above average”) have found that the more important an attribute is to us, the stronger the effect is. This might be why a fancier professes to have more dog knowledge than he or she actually has because in our competitive world, this is a high-value attribute.

The Better Than Average Effect is a measurement we determine for ourselves, and it can be a good thing when it helps us overcome obstacles, meet challenges and in general, feel better about ourselves. It becomes a problem, however, when the decisions we make based on knowledge we think we have impacts others: The judge who believes herself to be proficient at identifying breed type but makes placements in the ring that prove otherwise; the club member who strong arms his way into a position of authority and responsibility only to get in over his head quickly.

It doesn’t take long to wander into the area of conjecture. If the average dog owner exhibits a stronger “Better Than Average Effect,” doesn’t it stand to reason that the dog fancy invites, if not exacerbates, The Effect in people who gravitate to the sport because of their love of dogs?

I suspect it does. Social psychologists seeking to deconstruct the BTAE phenomenon found several factors which heighten the Better Than Average Effect, and I find a couple of them to be problematic in a sport that values balance and is supposed to encourage excellence, both in our dogs and ourselves.

Researchers found that motive plays a role in the outcome of “self” versus average-peer judgments, and that these judgments are made “relationally” rather than independently. In plain English, this means that in competition (read: the dog fancy environment) there’s no advantage in being inexperienced or unknowledgeable, and if anything, the “Better than Average Effect” is a survival mechanism. In my view, this hurts us. Evaluating dogs is a life long learning process, but real growth can’t come without knowing what we don’t know and feeling empowered to admit it. If it’s better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt (Mark Twain), wouldn’t it be great to be able to say, “I don’t know” without fear of feeling diminished so that we can get on with the business of constructive learning?

Veterans in the sport have observed for some time that “newbies” these days don’t seem to express interest in learning the history of their breed; some old timers go further by complaining that instant gratification is now the name of the game. I’m not sure that this is entirely new because waaayyyyy back in 1978 when I started out, the average “life span” of someone entering the sport was 5-7 years. That said, I do think there’s greater pressure now to enter a ring and leave with a ribbon. It seems, too, that there are fewer learning opportunities offered now than there was back in 1978 when at any given time, a seminar lead by Quentin LaHam, Rachel Paige Elliot or Pat Hastings could be found, and they’d be well attended by seasoned fanciers as well as beginners.   Sitting shoulder to shoulder with people who’d forgotten more than I knew took the sting out of being so new. It encouraged me to learn more.

Maybe this phenomenon is bigger we realize and it simply permeates the entire culture, but as sports go, the dog fancy is a bit of a fish bowl: Swim around it a few times and everybody knows everyone. Blunders aren’t quickly forgotten, and reinventing oneself after a rocky start is tough. The sport can only improve if we as fanciers, competitors, delegates, judges and club members foster a climate where it’s “ok” to not know something, then provide opportunities to learn the breed and our craft, if not mentor someone, ourselves.

If it’s true that the road to self-insight runs through other people, perhaps it’s time to get aggressive about being the kind of people we wish we knew when we started out.

This article first appeared in Dogs in Review,  July 2015

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