What Is the False Consensus Effect?

Why We Think That Other People Are Just Like Us

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Imagine this—your psychology instructor offers everyone in your class the chance to earn some extra credit points and gives two options. You can either choose to write a three-page paper or you can volunteer for two Saturdays at a local retirement home.

You quickly sign up for the volunteering opportunity and assume that the vast majority of your classmates will also pick the same option.

When you show up at the retirement home on Saturday, you are shocked to find out that only three other students chose the volunteer option—the rest opted to write the three-page paper.

This is a great example of the false consensus effect at work. Because you would prefer to volunteer your time to a worthy cause instead of writing a paper, you assume that the vast majority of other people also feel the same way you do.

What is the False Consensus Effect?

We have a tendency to overestimate the degree to which other people agree with our beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors. This creates a false consensus, which can influence our decisions and behaviors. The false consensus effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people mistakenly believe that more people agree with them or share the same beliefs than the number of people who agree with them in reality. People generally believe that their own values and ideas are "normal" and that the majority of people share these same opinions.

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 might immediately 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.

Because these examples come to mind so readily, you might be led to believe that a higher proportion of the population also shares those same qualities with you.

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

  1. Our family and friends are more likely to be similar to us and share many of the same beliefs and behaviors. Since our primary interactions are with these individuals that are the most similar to us, we tend to overestimate how much other people also behave in the same way.
  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.
  3. 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, leading us to overestimate just how common these beliefs really are.

Factors That Influence the False Consensus Effect

There are different factors that affect whether the false consensus effect tends to be stronger or weaker in certain situations.

False consensus tends to be stronger in these situations:

  • When the matter in question is of great importance to the individual
  • When the behavior, attitude, or belief seems to be directly linked to a specific situation
  • When people are very confident that their point-of-view is correct or more valid

False consensus tends to be weaker in these situations:

  • When beliefs and behaviors actually are shared by the vast majority of individuals
  • When people are unsure about how others might think or act
  • When it involves a negative aspect or view of the individual

The false consensus effect tends to be more prevalent in situations where we are heavily invested in the issue at hand. 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 fall victim to the false consensus effect in cases where situational factors play a major role. If we believe that our own opinions and preferences stem from external factors, we also tend to believe that other people will be equally influenced by these situational variables. 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 as the one they would choose, 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 from what each participant selected.

In a second study, Ross and his colleagues asked university students to walk around campus carrying a large board that said, "Eat at Joe's." While some students refused to participate, others agreed to wear the sign around campus. Both those who refused and those who agreed were asked to rate how likely they thought other students would be to agree to also wear the billboard. The researchers found that of the students who agreed to wear the sign, 62 percent believed that others students would also agree to wear the sign when asked. Of those who refused, only 33 percent felt that other people would be willing to wear the sign around campus.

So how did the students estimates compare to the percentages who actually refused versus those who agreed to wear the advertisement? The researchers found that of the students they asked, 60 percent agreed to wear the sign while 40 percent refused.

Examples of the False Consensus Effect in Action

  • Jim's Facebook news feed is filled with stories advocating the legalization of marijuana. As a result, Jim believes that the majority of people across the country support such actions. What he fails to consider is the fact that the sample he is drawing his data from involves people in his immediate social circle, most of whom share the same views he does on the issue. This creates a false impression that most people in the United States support the legalization of marijuana.
  • Stephanie is a strong supporter of animal welfare, and most of her friends and family members also love animals and support animal protection causes. Since everyone she knows seems to share a similar point of view, she overestimates how many people will come out to vote for a law regulating "puppy mills."
  • Carl reads conservative magazines, watches conservative television programs and hangs out with people who share his conservative politics. During a local election, he expects the conservative candidate to win by a landslide, but is stunned when the liberal candidate wins by a wide margin. Due to the false consensus effect, Carl overestimated how many people in his area shared his political views.
  • Steven and his friend Kyle both prefer iced tea over soda. They decide to invite a group of friends over to watch a movie. Because of their preferences for iced tea, they assume that all of their friends will also share the same tastes. Because of this, they only purchase iced tea to serve at their get-together instead of buying any other beverages. During the party, they are surprised when none of their friends want any of the iced tea. Because they preferred one type of drink, they overestimated the number of people who would also share that preference.

Some additional examples of the false consensus effect include:

  • Believing that since you support a candidate for your local city council that most people in your town also support the same candidate.
  • Believing that since you prefer a certain type of cell phone that the majority of other people also prefer the same device.
  • Believing that since you enjoy a certain hobby that most people also find the hobby interesting enjoyable.

Observations Regarding False Consensus

"My opinion, my conviction, gains infinitely in strength and success, the moment a second mind has adopted it." — Novalis, German poet and philosopher

"Furthermore, in addition to being exposed to a biased set of arguments relevant to a given belief, we are also exposed to a biased sample of people and their opinions. Liberals associate with fellow liberals; exercise enthusiasts affiliate with other athletes. Indeed, similarity of beliefs, values, and habits is one of the primary determinants of those with whom we associate. As a result, when trying to estimate the percentage of people who hold a particular belief, examples of people who believe as we do come to mind more readily than examples of people who believe differently. Our beliefs thus appear to be quite common. The most direct evidence for the influence of this mechanism on the false consensus effect is the finding that people's estimates of the prevalence of smoking are positively correlated with the number of people they know who smoke." — Thomas Gilovich, 1991

Sources:

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn't so. New York: The Free Press.

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

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