The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate how much others are like them, in terms of sharing things such as their beliefs, values, characteristics, experiences, and behaviors. Essentially, this means that the false consensus effect leads people to assume that others are more similar to them than they actually are.
For example, the false consensus effect can cause someone with extreme political beliefs to incorrectly assume that the majority of the population agrees with them and shares those beliefs, even though most people don’t.
Since this bias can influence people’s thoughts and actions in various domains, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the false-consensus effect, see examples of how it affects people, understand why people display it, and learn what you can do to deal with it in yourself and in others.
Examples of the false-consensus effect
One example of the false-consensus effect is someone believing that the political candidate that they favor has more support in the population than other candidates, even when that isn’t the case.
Another example of the false consensus effect is that racist people often believe that their racist views are prevalent among their peers, even when that isn’t the case.
Finally, a well-known example of the false-consensus effect appears in a 1977 study, where undergraduate university students were asked whether they would be willing to walk around the campus for 30 minutes while wearing a sign that says “Eat at Joe’s”. Then, they were then asked to estimate the portion of their peers that would agree to do the same:
- Around 53% of people agreed to wear the sign, and they estimated that around 65% of people would do the same.
- Around 47% of people refused to wear the sign, and they estimated that around 69% of people would do the same.
This shows that both people who agreed to wear the sign and those who refused to do so tended to overestimate the likelihood that others would choose to act the same way as them.
The psychology and causes of the false-consensus effect
The false-consensus effect can be attributed to several potential psychological mechanisms:
- Motivated reasoning. This reflects people’s desire to feel good about themselves, primarily by believing that their opinions, experiences, and behaviors are normative and common, so they conform with others. This is associated with self-enhancement and the self-serving bias, which involve increasing people’s self-esteem.
- Biased exposure to information. Most notably, people tend to spend more time interacting with individuals who share their opinions, experiences, and behaviors than with those who do not, which can bias their perception of what most people are like. Furthermore, people may experience similar biased exposure to information when it comes to other things, such as articles that they read or shows that they watch. This phenomenon itself is associated with various concepts, such as selective exposure to confirmatory information, for example through echo chambers on social media.
- Cognitive availability. People generally find it easier to think about their own opinions, experiences, and behaviors than about those of others, which can lead them to project those viewpoints and experiences onto others. This is associated with the availability heuristic, which causes people to rely more strongly on information that is easy for them to bring to mind.
- Focus of attention. People are generally more focused on what they are thinking and doing than on what others are thinking and doing, which causes them to assume that others are thinking and doing the same thing that they are. This can be due to various reasons, such as that information about oneself is generally more salient to people than information about others.
- Anchoring. When individuals try to assess other people’s perspective, when it comes to things such as their thoughts and experiences, they may use their own perspective as an initial anchor, and then fail to adjust from it sufficiently. This type of flawed anchoring-and-adjustment can also lead to other forms of assumed similarity between one’s current perspective and some other perspective.
Several of these mechanisms may play a role in a given situation, and a person might experience the false-consensus effect for any number of them. These mechanisms are also sometimes interrelated, for example in the case where motivated reasoning leads people to be selective in the information that they engage with.
Furthermore, other factors may also play a role in causing the false-consensus effect in some cases. For example, when people view their thoughts and actions as being driven by situational factors, they may have attributional issues, and overestimate the prevalence of these factors or the likelihood that they will influence other people the same way.
In addition, there is substantial variability when it comes to whether people display the false-consensus effect and how strongly they do so, due to various personal and situational factors. For example, people may be more motivated to overgeneralize about attitudes that are important to them, such as their political beliefs, than attitudes that are less important, such as their food preferences, though this factor itself doesn’t always play a role. Similarly, the degree to which people display the false consensus effect for a certain opinion can be influenced by whether their opinion is actually shared by the majority of the population or not.
Finally, in some cases, such as when people don’t have much contact with others who share their experiences, they may display the opposite pattern of thinking instead, called the false-uniqueness effect, whereby they underestimate how much others are like them.
This opposite pattern of thinking is also associated with the concept of pluralistic ignorance, which occurs when people believe that their private views are different from those of others even though their public behavior is similar, meaning that they tend to underestimate (rather than overestimate) how much others share their views. This phenomenon can lead to situations where all members in a group privately reject the group norms, while at the same time believing that the other group members accept them.
Overall, the false-consensus effect can be attributed to several partly interrelated causes, including motivated reasoning, biased exposure to information, increased cognitive availability of certain information, increased focus on certain information, and using one’s own perspective as an anchor when assessing other people’s perspective. Other factors may also play a role when it comes to this effect, and there is substantial variability in terms of whether people display it, how strongly they do so, and whether they display an opposite false-uniqueness effect instead.
Note: the false-consensus effect is a form of social projection, and the term “projection bias” is sometimes used to refer to it. In addition, this effect is also considered to be a type of egocentric bias.
How to deal with the false-consensus effect
To reduce the false-consensus effect, you can use the following debiasing techniques:
- Increase awareness of this bias. For example, you can learn what this bias is and what causes it, identify specific situations in which you might display it, and actively ask yourself whether you might be experiencing it. However, keep in mind that simply being aware of this bias is often insufficient when it comes to avoiding it, since people can continue to display it even when they are aware of it, and even when they are told that their estimates are biased.
- Engage with alternative perspectives. You can do this in various ways, such as by talking to people with different perspectives than you, or by thinking about what those different perspectives might be. This can be beneficial in various ways, such as by making you aware of these other perspectives, making it easier to consider them, and increasing their salience.
- Compare your perspective with those of others. For example, you can try to identify positive aspects of alternative perspectives, or negative aspects of your own perspective. This can help you engage with the alternative perspectives, and can help you assess the involved perspectives in a rational manner.
- Consider what caused you to develop your perspective, and what could cause others to develop a different perspective. For example, you can consider what aspects of your personality led you to act a certain way, and how other people’s personalities might differ from yours in a way that leads them to make different choices.
- Create psychological self-distance from your perspective. You can accomplish this, for example, by using second and third-person language when thinking about your views (e.g., “why do you believe this?”).
- Change your motivational considerations. For example, you can focus on how just because your opinion is different than the opinion of the majority, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with you.
- Use general debiasing techniques. These include, for example, slowing down your reasoning process and improving your decision-making environment. Furthermore, you will likely particularly benefit from debiasing techniques that address the specific causes of your false-consensus effect (e.g., waiting to make an estimate when you’re in an environment that minimizes pressure from close peers).
- Look at concrete data. For example, if you’re unsure what proportion of the population supports your favorite political candidate, then instead of estimating, try to find reliable sources that provide the relevant information.
When deciding which of these techniques to use in any given situation, keep in mind that their effectiveness depends on various factors, such as what specifically you’re displaying a false consensus effect toward and why.
You can also use these techniques not only to reduce your own false-consensus effect, but also to reduce the false-consensus effect that other people display. You can do this in various ways, such as teaching them about this bias and letting them debias themselves, helping them implement debiasing techniques, or implementing debiasing techniques directly on their behalf.
In addition, being aware of the false-consensus effect can be useful when it comes understanding and predicting people’s thoughts and actions, even if you don’t intend to reduce it directly. For example, it can help you predict that extremists will overestimate the prevalence of their views in the population, which can be useful when predicting their behavior, even if you can’t reduce the bias that they experience.
Finally, when dealing with the false-consensus effect, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of variability involved. This means that people won’t always display this bias, that they may display it in different ways and to different degrees, and that people may sometimes display an opposite effect instead, where they underestimate how much others are like them.
As such, you shouldn’t always expect people to display this bias, and you should understand that people’s estimates of how similar they are to others might be right. When in doubt, you should consider relevant factors that could give you an indication regarding how accurate someone’s estimate is, such as what information they’re basing it on, and if possible also look at relevant information yourself when assessing someone’s estimates.
Overall, to reduce the false-consensus effect, you can increase awareness of this bias, engage with alternative perspectives, consider what can cause people to develop different perspectives, create psychological distance from your perspective, change your motivational considerations, use other debiasing techniques, and look at concrete data. Furthermore, accounting for this bias can help you understand and predict people’s behavior, including your own, even when you don’t reduce this bias directly, but you should remember that there is substantial variability in whether and how people display it.
Summary and conclusions
- The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate how much others are like them, in terms of sharing things such as their beliefs, values, characteristics, experiences, and behaviors.
- For example, the false consensus effect can cause someone with extreme political beliefs to incorrectly assume that the majority of the population shares those beliefs, even though most people don’t.
- The false-consensus effect can be attributed to several partly interrelated causes, including motivated reasoning, biased exposure to information, increased cognitive availability of certain information, increased focus on certain information, and using one’s own perspective as an anchor when assessing other people’s perspective
- To reduce the false-consensus effect, you can increase awareness of this bias, engage with alternative perspectives, consider what can cause people to develop different perspectives, create psychological distance from your perspective, change your motivational considerations, use other debiasing techniques, and look at concrete data.
- Accounting for this bias can help you understand and predict people’s behavior, including your own, even when you don’t reduce this bias directly, but you should remember that there is substantial variability in whether and how people display it.