The False Consensus Effect: Why People Assume that Everyone Agrees with Them

The False Consensus Effect

 

The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the likelihood that others think and act in the same way that they do. For example, the false consensus effect could cause extremists to assume that their views are shared by a large portion of the population, in situations where that’s not the case.

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 experience it, and learn what you can do in order to account for its influence.

 

What is the false consensus effect

The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviors are shared by others. As such, the false-consensus effect causes people to assume that other people think and act in the same way that they do, even when that isn’t the case.

 

Examples of the false-consensus effect

People experience the false-consensus effect in many areas of life, and the best-known example of this cognitive bias appears in Ross’ 1977 study on the topic.

In this study, undergraduate students at Stanford University 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 these people estimated that approximately 65% of people would do the same.
  • Around 47% of people refused to wear the sign, and these people estimated that approximately 69% of people would do the same.

This demonstrates how, in both cases, people overestimated the degree to which others will choose to act in the same way that they did.

Furthermore, other studies show that people experience the false-consensus effect in other, more serious scenarios.

For example, one study shows that people often believe that the political candidate that they favor has more support in the population than other candidates, even when that isn’t the case. Similarly, another study shows that racist people often believe that their racist views are prevalent among their peers, even when that isn’t the case.

Overall, people can experience the false-consensus effect in various situations. Essentially, whenever someone attempts to make judgments regarding the thoughts and actions of others, they tend to overestimate the degree to which those thoughts and actions are similar to their own.

 

Why people experience the false-consensus effect

There are several reasons why people experience the false-consensus effect:

  • Motivational processes. People generally want to believe that their thoughts and actions are normal and prevalent. This form of motivated social projection is an example of a self-serving bias, since it allows people to enhance their self-esteem by making them feel that they conform with others.
  • Selective exposure. People tend to spend more time interacting with individuals who share their opinions and behaviors than with those who do not. This gives people a distorted view of what the average person is like, since most of the individuals that they engage with share their perspective, and act in a relatively similar manner.
  • Cognitive availability. People find it easier to think about their own viewpoints and experiences, which encourages them to project those viewpoints and experiences onto others. This is an example of the availability heuristic, which causes people to rely more strongly on information that is readily available to them.
  • Focus of attention. People are generally more focused on what they are thinking than on what others are thinking, which causes them to assume that others are thinking the same thing that they are.
  • Egocentric bias. People spend most of the time seeing things from their own perspective, so they struggle to shift from this perspective when assessing other people’s viewpoint. This form of anchoring-and-adjustment problem leads to other cases of assumed similarity, in situations where people attempt to assess other people’s perspective.
  • Attributional bias. When people view their thoughts and actions as occurring due to external causes, they tend to overestimate how common those patterns of thinking and acting are, because they assume that others would be influenced in a similar manner by those external circumstances.

Note that several of these cognitive mechanisms may be active at the same time, and a person might experience the false-consensus effect for any number of them.

 

The false-consensus effect and pluralistic ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon where people believe that their private views are different from those of others, even though their public behavior is similar.

This 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.

As such, pluralistic ignorance leads to an opposite effect than the false-consensus bias, since pluralistic ignorance causes people to underestimate the degree to which other people agree with them, while the false-consensus bias causes people to overestimate the degree to which other people agree with them.

 

How to account for the false-consensus effect

There are several ways you can account for the false-consensus effect and mitigate its influence.

First, you can simply keep in mind the fact that people will likely overestimate the degree to which others agree with them. This can be helpful when it comes to understanding other people’s thought process and predicting their actions.

Moreover, you can also keep this in mind when it comes to your own thought process, which can help you reduce the false-consensus effect that you experience, and allow you to judge situations more clearly and therefore make more rational decisions.

However, simply being aware of this bias is sometimes not enough, and people often continue to experience the false-consensus effect even when they are aware of it, and even when they are shown corrective information, which clearly proves that their estimates are biased.

Accordingly, another thing that you can do in order to mitigate this effect is to think about alternative viewpoints that are different from your own, or to think about positive or negative aspects of your own viewpoint. This can help you question your viewpoint, by demonstrating the advantages of alternative viewpoints, while also highlighting the issues associated with your own actions or beliefs.

If you do this, keep in mind that it will generally be more difficult to think about the negative aspects of something that you like, than about the positive aspects of something that you dislike.

Furthermore, remember that it can often be difficult to think of a large number of alternative viewpoints or of a large number of positive or negative aspects of your own viewpoints, and so you might benefit more if you try to think of only a relatively small number of items (e.g. 3 as opposed to 8), though there isn’t a single number that will perfectly fit every scenario that you’re in.

In addition, another thing that you can do to reduce the influence of the false-consensus effect is to focus on the internal reasons for your thoughts and actions, rather than on the external ones. This means, for example, that when you think about your reasons for choosing a certain course of action, you should focus on factors such as your personality and your personal preferences, rather than on factors such as the environment you were in.

However, when doing this, it’s important to be wary and not dismiss the influence of crucial external factors in situations where their influence does play a role in shaping people’s actions and beliefs.

An additional set of techniques that you can use involve creating psychological self-distance from your viewpoint. You can accomplish this, for example, by using second and third-person language when thinking about your experiences, instead of first-person language (e.g. “how did you feel” instead of “how did I feel”).

This can help reduce the degree to which you are attached to your viewpoint, which in turn can help reduce both your tendency to view things from your own perspective, as well as your motivation to assume that others are thinking or doing the same.

Furthermore, if these techniques are not sufficient, you can also use other, more general cognitive debiasing techniques. These include, for example, slowing down your reasoning process and improving your decision-making environment.

Finally, when you attempt to account for the false-consensus effect that you experience, remember that you’re not necessarily wrong if you think that other people share your viewpoint. The more information you base your assessment on, and the more carefully you apply debiasing techniques before making that assessment, the better you will be able to judge the situation.

Overall, it can be beneficial to account for the false-consensus effect both in other people’s thought process as well as in your own. There are several debiasing techniques that you can use to reduce the influence of this effect, such as considering alternative viewpoints, thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of those viewpoints, and increasing your psychological distance from your stance.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviors are shared by others.
  • For example, the false-consensus effect can cause people to assume that others share their political and social views, even when that isn’t the case.
  • People display the false-consensus effect for several reasons, including their desire to believe that their views are normal, their relatively high level of exposure to people who share their viewpoints, their general focus on their own point of view, and their ability to easily access information relating to their stance.
  • The main ways to reduce the false-consensus effect are to think about alternative viewpoints before estimating how widespread your own viewpoint is, and to think of positive aspects of those alternative viewpoints, as well as of negative aspects of your own viewpoint.
  • In addition, if you want to mitigate the false-consensus effect, you can focus on the internal causes for your thoughts and actions, which will help you assess the degree to which your viewpoint depends on those factors, and you can also use self-distancing techniques, which will help reduce the degree to which you are attached to your viewpoint.