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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Where All The Givers Are Above Average

It's known as the "Lake Woebegon Effect." It is our tendency to believe that in many areas of our lives we are "above average." The name comes, of course, from Garrison Keillor's description of all the children in the fictional Minnesota town as "above average." 

We believe that we are above average drivers. We believe that we are above average students. We believe that we are above average lovers. We believe that our sense of humor is above average as well (even if we do seem to be a bunch of old grumps).

We have highly optimistic estimates of our own performance and competence. Of course, it cannot be the case that everyone is above average. An average requires that some people are below and some are above. We simply believe that in every case we are part of the "above" crowd. And typically we believe that we are in the "well above" crowd. 

This isn't due merely to hubris. In fact, we live with an optimism bias and a self-justification bias. We are wired to see ourselves as above average. And we have to think hard in order to see ourselves with more realism.

So we believe that we are more likely to succeed where others have failed. We believe we are less likely to suffer from illness or injury than others. And this can even impact our physicians as they advise us. We believe that we can take greater risks than others because they are the ones who will make up the bottom fifty percent of the average.

This is all true unless we have been made aware recently of something bad that has happened. Then we are likely to overestimate our chances of something bad happening to us. The insurance industry lives off this negativity bias created by what is called the "availability" heuristic.

I wonder how this impacts people's giving behavior. I'd love to find a way to survey people in congregations about how they see their giving relative to the average in a congregation. I hypothesize that many people would see themselves as "above average" in their giving. That would be true until they were exposed to the actual average number. I am quite sure that most people underestimate that number and therefore overestimate their relationship to that number.

Certainly a few people would underestimate the average. These are the folks who give significantly more than the average and raise that number. Their estimates will be influenced by their available experience. The other exception would be those folks who actually deal with contribution information in a congregation. There may be no better stewardship education than to be church financial secretary (if one can resist the temptation toward bitter judgmentalism).

I am guessing that if we did actual surveys in congregations, we would irritate and offend many people. In some places, even the mention of "giving" verges on uttering an obscenity. So, short of that tactic, I would suggest that churches need to publish several times a year numbers that reflect simple giving benchmarks. Average household giving is one benchmark. Median household giving would be another. Giving ranges could provide some additional context.

We don't like to be below average for a number of reasons. I think congregations could use our natural tendencies to help us feel realistically above average and to stop living in Lake Woebegon.