What is the False Consensus Effect?
The false consensus effect is a form of cognitive bias known as an attribution error. Attribution errors are tendencies to attribute reasons, motives, or opinions to others. In the case of the false consensus effect, we expect others to behave or believe in the same way that we would ourselves. We tend to believe that our own attitudes and responses are common and typical. As a result, anyone else who behaves or believes differently than ourselves must be extremely different, perhaps even defective. In essence, we will tend to believe that a consensus exists whether or not this belief is warranted.
From a psychological standpoint, the false consensus effect increases our self-esteem by fostering a stronger perception of unity within a group. Since we expect all others similar to us to act and think in the same way, we feel more strongly connected on the basis of this perceived similarity. Even when an individual recognizes that their beliefs are not shared by the vast majority, there will still be a tendency to overestimated the degree to which they are shared by others similar to them or occupying the same group.
The false consensus effect, like all attribution errors, is a form of social inference. We are often unaware of the motives or perceptions of others. However, many social situations require us to act in ways that influence others. Therefore, we are forced to make inferences regarding their needs, perceptions, preferences, or attitudes. Therefore, we use heuristics, cognitive algorithms that help us to respond in the absence of complete knowledge. Social heuristics most commonly involve a degree of projection, a tendency to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and respond accordingly. So, we will tend to project our own values and responses upon others. Our generalizations tend to foster a perception that others are like us and that those who deviate from these generalizations are vastly different from ourselves.
False Consensus Effect Example
One excellent example of the false consensus effect comes from a study performed by Ross, Greene, and House in 1977. Ross et. al. asked a study group what they would do upon receiving a speeding ticket. They were given two choices: either pay the fine or contest the ticket in court. First, they were asked to determine the percentage of people that they would expect to make either decision. Next, they were asked to disclose their own preferred response to the situation. Members of the study were also asked to fill out questionnaires detailing the personality characteristics they would expect of those who would make each decision.
In line with the false consensus effect, those who would pay the fine expected that the majority of others would pay the fine as well. Similarly, those who would prefer to contest the ticket in court expected most other to do the same. Furthermore, the questionnaires indicated that the members of the study group expected that those who make the opposite decision would be very different from themselves. Most often, they expected others to have extreme personality traits and extremely different backgrounds.
We frequently encounter examples of this phenomenon in daily life. We unwittingly expect others to have the same political views, food and drink preferences, attitudes towards socialization and sexuality, moral perceptions, and so on. We also tend to assume that it is only those unlike ourselves who would choose otherwise. We may expect them to be from different countries or social backgrounds. In extreme cases, we’ll even believe that there has to be something wrong with them if they believe or act differently than we do. Because this expectation is subconscious, the only way to counter it is to recognize that it is a typical error in though and edit it out consciously.
False Consensus Effect: Why Does it Happen?
Although there is so single answer as to why the false consensus effect occurs, there are several aspects of human cognition that lead us in this direction. One of the major contributing factors to this phenomenon is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency to base our decisions and evaluations on the information that is most readily available to us. Since we are most likely to be surrounded by others who are similar to us in thoughts, beliefs, and actions, we’ll tend to base our social inferences on these individuals. This is termed selective exposure. Another aspect of the availability heuristic is to project the beliefs and opinions of others upon our own. In addition to the availability heuristic, this is based in the psychological defense mechanism of projection.
Another potential reason for the false consensus effect is the self-serving bias. One aspect of this is the logical information processing theory. This is the tendency to see our own thoughts and perspectives as logical. Since we expect that our reactions are the most rational, we also expect them to be held in common by all others thinking rationally. From another perspective, there are motivational influences that support the false consensus effect in line with the self-serving bias. Believing that others will respond like we do strengthens our self-esteem by fostering a deeper sense of connection with those in our own group, those similar enough to us to be associated with our social identity.
Factors that Influence the False Consensus Effect
Though the false consensus effect is a universal quality of human cognition, it is not equally strong in every circumstance. Certain factors can strengthen or reinforce the phenomenon, while others can weaken it or make it less prevalent. The false consensus effect tends to be stronger when we are emotionally invested in the subject, such as when we believe that it is extremely important or feel passionate about it. Similarly, if we strongly believe that our perspective is correct, we will have greater confidence that it is shared by the majority of others. Finally, when we share a situation with others, we will tend to assume that our reactions to this situation are the same as others.
On the other side, the false consensus effect is weakened to some degree when we feel ourselves to be an outsider. This can occur when we are surrounded by others who are different from ourselves in terms of background, nationality, gender, ethnicity, or other factors. Another factor that can counter the false consensus effect is training or perspective. When we are taught to recognize our own perspective and its highly personal nature, we will be less prone to assuming that our own attitudes are shared by others. This is an important factor, as it is completely under our control. By becoming more aware of our own patterns of thought and behavior, we can begin to recognize that they are not necessarily common to all, even to those closest to us.