The False Consensus Effect - Not Everyone Thinks the Same Way As You

Updated on 22nd December, 2022

The False Consensus Effect Definition

Have you ever made the assumption that everyone around you shares the same views, beliefs, and attitudes as you? Have you also questioned the validity of that belief? If the answers to each of those questions were yes and no, you have most likely fallen prey to the False Consensus Effect. Otherwise known as the False Consensus Bias, the False Consensus Effect is a potent cognitive bias that causes people to view their own behavioral choices, thoughts, and beliefs as common and appropriate to their current circumstances.

Simply put, the False Consensus Effect makes people believe that their thoughts and judgments are universally shared when in most cases, they are not.

The belief that your thoughts and judgments are universally shared
The belief that your thoughts and judgments are universally shared

For example, the False Consensus Effect is highly prevalent within political campaigns, where a supporter of a particular candidate will believe that the candidate they favor is also favored by most people in the population, even when this may not necessarily be true. Another example that has been shown in research is how racism remains prevalent, as people who hold highly prejudicial views believe that they are shared by the rest of their social surroundings.

It can be considered a form of social projection that individuals partake in to try and make sense of the world around them because, at the end of the day, it’s easier to live in a world where everyone agrees with you, right? Ultimately, the False Consensus Effect is very powerful and should not be taken lightly, as it has the ability to dictate self-esteem and subsequent behavior.

What is the False Consensus Effect?

Although the False Consensus Effect is an observable phenomenon that can be measured within experiments, its exact mechanisms are still being understood within research. However, five primary factors that lead to the False Consensus Effect have been proposed to explain it:

Individuals tend to group themselves with other like-minded individuals
Individuals tend to group themselves with other like-minded individuals

1) Motivational Processes – Most, if not all, people desire to feel good about themselves. One way of doing this is by ensuring that their opinions and experiences align with normative social judgments. Simply put, if your views are shared by others, this may give you a sense of social validation that will make you feel better about yourself. In the context of the False Consensus Effect, a person may unconsciously project their views onto others as it may have a positive effect on their mood and feelings of acceptance.

2) Selective Exposure and Availability – This is a relatively simple process that relates to how individuals tend to group themselves with other like-minded individuals who share the same views and opinions. Because of all the different similarities and overlapping features, a person could be led to develop a consensus about a given opinion, despite never bringing it up with their social group.

It’s easier to live in a world where everyone agrees
It’s easier to live in a world where everyone agrees

3) Ambiguity Resolution – One thing that is unique to social interactions is that they are highly ambiguous, and often, they demand the need to fill in gaps of unknown information by using guesswork or inference. An example is when you meet someone new and begin the “feeling out” process, where you pick up cues and signs of who the other person might be. Once that feeling-out process has been completed, people become much more at ease with each other because they have filled in the gaps. It would be possible to create a false consensus during this process to understand the other and make false inferences about their views.

4) Salience and Focus of Attention – This factor posits that since people are more focused on their own thoughts and beliefs, those of others do not have much space to enter their immediate consciousness. As a result, their focus of attention is purely centered on their own views, leaving little space for the views of others to enter their thoughts. Parallel to this, personal views are also more salient (i.e., obvious) within the mind, which leads to additional attention being attributed to it.

5) Logical Information Processing – Logical Information Processing relates to the fact that most people believe that their reasoning stems from logical and rational thinking processes. Unfortunately, some fail to realize that personal logic is highly subjective. Despite this, because they undertook their reasoning through logical means, they attribute high degrees of validity to their conclusions. This is because it is implied that everyone uses the same logic and therefore reaches the same conclusions as each other.

History of the False Consensus Effect

The notion that people tend to project their personal views onto others has existed in scientific literature for many years. Some psychologists attributed the phenomenon to inferential reasoning, which is essentially how our mind uses different clues to guess correct information. Others have attributed the False Consensus effect to a process called Egocentric Attribution, which is when individuals remain bound by their own attitudes and beliefs.

However, these theories were quickly dispelled due to a lack of supporting evidence. It was not until 1977, when the False Consensus Effect displayed clarity within research, when American Psychologist Lee Ross (1942-2021) coined the term. In his study, he used the term “False Consensus” to describe the process by which participants would view their own behavioral choices and judgments as common and appropriate to a given circumstance. He believed that everybody functions within the world by creating schemas (or templates) of how reality is so that it makes sense to them. If their worldview works for them, it is almost natural for them to extend it to the needs and wants of others, ultimately creating a False Consensus Effect.

Personal logic is highly subjective
Personal logic is highly subjective

Case Examples of the False Consensus Effect

Case 1: The False-Consensus Effect was first demonstrated in a founding study conducted by Lee Ross, who coined the term in 1977. Within this experiment, the researchers asked the participants to imagine multiple scenarios and then tasked them with estimating how they thought the other participants would react in the same scenario. One scenario involved driving through a countryside area not too far from one’s home when a police offer came and informed them that they had been caught using the radar and that they were traveling 38 miles an hour in a 25 miles per hour zone. In this scenario, the driver believes the policeman was correct, but upon inspecting their citation after his departure, they realize that all the details on the summons concerning the time, location, and visibility of the violations are highly inaccurate.

Now, they either face a 20-dollar fine which can either be paid through mail, or they can go through another route and contest the fine in court if they so wish. After deciding which option they would take, the researchers then asked the participants to estimate what percentage of the other participants would pick a similar choice. Unsurprisingly, many participants displayed a solid False Consensus Effect as they believed that almost 70 percent of the participant sample would choose the same.

Lee Ross coined the term in 1977 with his policeman experiment
Lee Ross coined the term in 1977 with his policeman experiment

Case 2: One domain of life in which the False Consensus Effect produces significant implications is within business and leadership. In a company, a large portion of employee engagement and team productivity depends on the boss’s or manager’s leadership skills. According to research, a strong leader is one that can place themselves in the shoes of their employees and make informed decisions based on this knowledge. It also entails being fair and self-aware that you are leading from the point of understanding and not narrow blindness. One major issue is that these traits have to be learned, and they risk being overpowered by the False Consensus Effect if one remains ignorant of its effects. When a leader stops thinking about these factors and begins assuming, they risk violating the trust and communication that is crucial to be in place between the team and themselves.

As a manager, examples of this are assuming that all of your team members desire to work in the same way that you do, creating extremely stringent expectations that are very difficult to follow. Another example of this is expecting that others have the same career aspiration as you, and then becoming disappointed when they do not step up to your guidance when they are happy just where they are in their profession. Ultimately, the False Consensus Effect causes a leader to extend their own beliefs onto the perceived beliefs of others, creating a form of delusion that can be extremely harmful to team dynamics.

The False Consensus Effect is responsible for a large portion of break-ups and divorce
The False Consensus Effect is responsible for a large portion of break-ups and divorce

Case 3: If you did not know, the False Consensus Effect is responsible for a large portion of break-ups and divorces in the world. Instability between loved ones can be a significant False Consensus example observed within romantic relationships. The inability to understand what another person may be genuinely thinking or simply believing that they hold the same beliefs as yourself has been a leading cause of friction within a relationship. Imagine that a wife and her husband, under the spell of the False Consensus Effect, get into an argument about who should take their child to school the following day. Since the husband has been behind on a work assignment, he believes that the assignment should be his priority, and since he is bringing in a lot of money through his work, he should not worry about bringing his child to school.

He also does not understand why his wife is contesting this as it is only logical that he focuses on his job while his wife focuses on the family side of things. However, his wife has been taking their child to school every day, and she has recently come down with an intense fever and would rather not go outdoors in the cold morning air. Because of the False Consensus Effect, the husband refuses to budge, as he is unable to put his perspective aside and see the situation through the eyes of his wife, who is not demanding anything from him but asking for some help. All it takes is a slight shift in perspective, and this rift can be moved past with ease.

A Beautiful Quote

“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth”

- Albert Einstein

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