What Is the False Consensus Effect?

Why we assume others think the same way we do

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The tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with us is known among social psychologists as the false consensus effect. This kind of cognitive bias leads people to believe that their own values and ideas are "normal" and that the majority of people share these same opinions.

Let’s say Jim’s Facebook news feed is full of stories advocating a certain political position. Even though that feed is curated by Jim to include people he knows and is influenced by an algorithm based on Jim’s behavior, he may overestimate how many people agree with this position.

Why Does the False Consensus Effect Happen?

One of the possible causes of the false consensus effect involves what is known as the availability heuristic. When we are trying to estimate how common or likely something is we tend to look at the examples that come to mind most readily.

If you are trying to determine if other people share your beliefs, you’ll probably think of people who are the most similar to you, like your family and friends, and it's very likely that they do share many things in common with you.

Researchers have suggested that there are three main reasons why false consensus occurs:

  1. Our family and friends are more likely to be similar to us and share many of the same beliefs and behaviors.

  2. Believing that other people think and act the same way we do can be beneficial to our self-esteem. In order to feel good about ourselves, we are motivated to think that other people are just like us.

  1. We are the most familiar with our own attitudes and beliefs. Since these ideas are always at the forefront of our minds, we are more likely to notice when other people share similar attitudes.

Factors That Influence the False Consensus Effect

The false consensus effect tends to be stronger in certain situations.

If we consider something really important or feel confident in our point of view, the degree of false consensus tends to be stronger; that is, we’re most likely to assume more people agree with us.

If you are very concerned about the environment, for example, you will probably be more likely to overestimate the number of people who are also very concerned about environmental issues.

The effect is also stronger in instances where we are very sure that our beliefs, opinions, or ideas are the correct ones. If you are absolutely 100 percent convinced that passing a certain law will reduce the amount of crime in your community, you are more likely to believe that the majority of other voters in your town will also support the passage of the law.

Finally, we are more likely to experience the false consensus effect in cases where situational factors play a major role. For example, imagine that you go to see a film, but you think the movie is terrible because the special effects are so poor. Since you assume that everyone else viewing the movie is sharing the same experience and forming the same opinions, you might mistakenly believe that all the other viewers will also share your belief that the movie is terrible.

Research on the False Consensus Effect

The false consensus effect was first named and described in the late 1970s by researcher Lee Ross and his colleagues.

In one experiment, the researchers had study participants read about a situation in which a conflict occurs, as well as two different ways of responding to the conflict. The participants were then asked to say which of the two options they would choose, guess which option other people would probably choose, and describe the type of people who would choose each of the two options.

The researchers discovered that no matter which of the options the participants selected, they also tended to believe that the majority of people would also select that option.

The researchers also found that people tended to give more extreme descriptions of the characteristics of people who would choose the alternate options.

Sources:

Pennington, D. C. (2000). Social cognition. London: Routledge.

Taylor, J. "Cognitive Biases vs. Common Sense ." Psychology Today July 2011

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