Have you ever been shocked that people don’t agree with you when you assumed they would? You may be experiencing the false consensus effect.

What is the false consensus effect?

False consensus effect is a cognitive bias which causes people to overestimate the normality of their opinions, beliefs, values, and preferences. This leads to the perception that there is a consensus in which people agree with the individual in question. This consensus, however, does not exist.

The false consensus has the power to increase or decrease self-esteem, overconfidence bias, or a belief that everyone knows one’s own knowledge or shares that belief. This effect leads us to believe that others feel the same way we do, and it may shock us when they find they don’t.

A well-known study at Stanford University asked undergraduate students whether they would be willing to walk around campus wearing a sign saying, ‘Eat at Joe’s’. The students then estimated would give the same answer as them.

  • 53% of people agreed to wear the sign. These people estimated that 65% of people would do the same.
  • 47% of people refused to wear the sign. These people estimated that 69% of people would do the same.

This study showed how people overestimated the degree to which others would agree with them.

Studies also show people often believe the political candidates they favor are also favored by the majority of the population. Another, that those with racist views often believe those views are present in the minds of others in their peer group.

These studies show that false consensus bias can occur in a wide range of situations and vary in their seriousness.  This overestimation can be both positive and negative.

Where does the false consensus come from?

False consensus comes from a desire to conform to societal norms and be liked by others within the same environment. The effect is present in individuals and in large groups. The members of a group achieve a consensus and will seldom meet those who differ in opinion. Those within the group tend to conform to this consensus or try to conform to what they consider the consensus may be.

This reinforces the false consensus. When they do encounter someone who thinks differently or evidence against their belief, they tend to reject it.

Why does it occur?

When trying to make a decision or estimate how likely something is, we consider examples which come to mind first. When considering belief, we look to those closest to us, such as friends and family. These people tend to be similar to us and share the same beliefs.

This leads us to believe that others will think and feel the same way. Because we are more aware of our own beliefs than others, we notice more readily when we meet someone who shares whose views. We naturally gravitate towards these people.

Moreover, believing that others agree with us serves our self-esteem in a positive way. We are more motivated to believe that others will agree with us than disagree. We then tend to focus attention on those who do.

It is easier to assume that others feel the same way that we do. This encourages us to project our thoughts and beliefs onto others. We rely on the information which is most available to us and form judgments on it. We thus assume that others read the same information and form the same opinions.

What influences this cognitive bias?

There are a number of factors which can affect the false consensus effect. There are some situations in which it will be stronger than others.

If we feel that our opinion on a particular topic is more knowledgeable or important, we are more likely to think that others do or should agree with us. If you are completely convinced of something, you are more likely to think others feel the same way.

The larger the group we experience something with, the more we will be convinced others agree with our opinion. For example, a film. When we know that others have experienced the exact same thing as we have, we will believe they will feel the exact same thing we have. This explains differences of opinion in film and television.

How to fight the false consensus effect

It is important to account for the false consensus bias in our thinking. By understanding where it stems from, we can begin to mitigate its influence in our behavior.

Be accepting that others may not agree with you. They may have information or knowledge which you do not, so be open-minded. Always consider other viewpoints and information when forming your own opinion, or to consider where your own argument may have weak spots.

Focus on your internal reasons for a belief and what may be influencing your thought process to believe it. Try to distance yourself from the factors which make your decision and consider new evidence from different sources to gain an all-round perspective.

False consensus bias can leave us overconfident in some situations. It is important to mitigate this so that we can properly estimate the reactions of others and plan for this. Although we naturally think people agree with us, it is important to understand that they may not.

References:

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com
  2. https://academic.oup.com

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