The false consensus effect describes a cognitive bias where we tend to assume that other people share our own views and beliefs.
The false consensus effect was first identified by the psychologist Lee Ross, in his seminal paper, “The False Consensus Effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution process”, in 1977.
The false consensus effect can also be understood through the lens of another psychological phenomenon known as the availability heuristic.
The availability heuristic is a mental bias where we assume the explanation or understanding that comes to us most immediately and readily is the right one.
- Discussions with Strangers – A person having a conversation at a bar who assumes the person they’re talking to has the same political values as they do.
- Test Results – A student who assumes that their peers also found the exam to be super difficult.
- Musical Preferences – A friend who assumes their friends like or don’t like the same music as you.
- Dinner Nights – A dinner host who assumes their dinner guests will like the same food as you.
- First Dates – A first date who assumes the person across from them wants the same thing out of a relationship as them.
More Detailed Examples
In the first study of the false consensus effect, Lee Ross asked study participants to guess other people’s opinions on a topic after reading about it.
The false consensus effect is concerned with how people have a tendency to assume the relevance or ubiquity of their own internal opinions and viewpoints.
In 1977, Lee Ross developed this observation further (that people have the tendency to overestimate the relevance of their own views,) and conducted an experiment which he coined as the ‘false consensus’ effect.
For the study, the participants were asked to read the details of a conflict first and then they were given two options on how to respond to this conflict. Subsequently, the participants were asked to guess which option the other study participants chose.
What the results found was that the majority of participants assumed the others would respond to the conflict in the same way that they had done themselves, even though this was not necessarily the case. The study shows the false consensus effect by highlighting our tendency to naturally assume others share our own views.
In another experiment Ross conducted on the false consensus effect, he asked study participants (university students) if they would walk around their school campus wearing an advertisement board that says, “Eat at Joe’s”.
The participants were not given any additional information about Joe’s restaurant, the quality of food or service. The participants were encouraged to participate in the study because they were told that they would learn “something useful” through their involvement.
Similar to the previous experiment’s results, the sandwich board experiment showed that 62% of those that agreed to carry the sandwich board assumed that others would too.
Of the participants that refused to carry the sandwich board, 33% of them felt that others would also disagree. The study results shed light on our natural inclination to assume the popularity of our own opinions to be held more widely than they are.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1973 coined the term ‘availability heuristic’, which refers to our subconscious biases to defer to our immediate assumptions and experiences that come to mind when looking to understand concepts and ideas.
The idea here is that information and experiences that more readily come to mind are one’s that we will implicitly favor or be inclined to accept as true (even though this may not necessarily be the case).
The availability heuristic does not necessarily lead to incorrect judgments, though it is susceptible to falsity.
This is because it takes recent experiences or judgments and elevates their significance in our minds due to the fact they were experienced by us recently (which is not, all things considered, a good reason to view something as more credible).
In a 1980 study conducted by Clifford Brown, titled “A false consensus bias in 1980 presidential preferences”, the question the study poses is whether people overestimate the popularity of their own preferred presidential candidate over others.
The study subjects were asked to complete an ‘Opinion Survey’ answering the following questions:
- The presidential candidate they preferred,
- The presidential candidate they felt most others in their class preferred
- The presidential candidate that the majority of the US preferred.
The study results found that it was consistently assumed that the individual’s preferred candidate ranked higher across the board.
In other words, they assumed that the presidential candidate that they most preferred was also the broadly preferred candidate. This indicates the false consensus effect at play.
Consider this scenario. Ashley has a group project she’s working on with other classmates in her class.
Over the weekend, Ashley took it upon herself to finish the majority of the group project, despite not discussing this first with her peers.
In class, Ashley showed the rest of the group all that she’d done, and was met with some unsavory feedback from her group.
The rest of the group had not wanted to give Ashley full control over the direction of the project; whereas Ashley just assumed the group would be happy with her decision-making.
This exemplifies the false consensus effect since Ashley overestimated the idea that the rest of the group would agree with her, when this was not clearly the case.
This shows our tendency to assume that others agree with our opinions and views, though this may not be true.
Here’s another scenario. Sarah and Jack are planning a dinner party for a bunch of their friends. They’re going to assume their friends like the same foods as them!
Sarah loves exotic, spicy food, and so she’s decided to prepare numerous exotic dishes for the party. Once the guests arrive, most people cannot eat the food because it’s too spicy for them. The dishes go untouched.
While Sarah loves spicy food, she may have overestimated the popularity of these flavorful dishes amongst her friend group.
It’s an easy mistake to make, but also points to the phenomenon of the false consensus effect. Sarah’s assumption that most people like spicy food is likely just because she herself enjoys spicy foods.
Have you ever met a cat lover? What about a dog lover? Of course, there are cat and dog lovers (these things aren’t mutually exclusive,) but sometimes people are firmly one or the other.
People that are adamant about being dog/cat lovers tend to assume that others feel the same as them, and share their personal preference.
Sometimes people even go as far as to believe that there is an objective truth, or ‘right answer’ to this question (even though it’s clearly up to the individual person which one they prefer.) This type of thinking or belief is indicative of the false consensus effect.
8. Mullen’s Game Show Experiment
In a study by Brian Mullen, he distilled data from an old TV game show to see whether the false consensus was implicated in the way the contestants answered the questions.
The show is called “Play the Percentages”. The contestant would be asked a question, and then they had to guess the percentage of the audience members that also knew the answer to the question.
Mullen’s study found that when the contestants themselves knew the answers to the question, they significantly overestimated the percentage of the audience members that would also know the answer, and vice versa. Mullen’s game show experiment is a case in point of the false consensus effect.
Adam and Andrea are just starting to get to know each other. They’ve been on a couple of dates, and so far things have been going well and they seem to like each other.
It’s still early in their relationship, but Andrea knows for sure that she doesn’t want to have kids.
Based on her impression of Adam, she thinks that he probably has the same opinion on kids and wouldn’t want them either. The reality is that Adam does want kids, and it’s a non-negotiable for him.
Andrea’s assumption that Adam holds the same view as him is her overestimating the popularity of her view, or just that she feels Adam is similar to her and therefore must share that same view.
The thing is, even when we take ourselves to be similar to others, we can still assume they have the same opinion even when they don’t. Evidently, Andrea is guilty of the false consensus effect.
We tend to associate more with people that hold our opinions and viewpoints about the world. Part of this has to do with feeling accepted by our social circles and broader society.
When we assume that others share our opinions, we feel more included and like we belong. We also feel connected, and this is part of why people stick to groups that hold their views and systems of belief.
The flipside of this is that by being around others who share our views, this can distort our perceptions and make us believe that most people share our views.
As a result, we may understand our own opinions and feelings towards things to be of a greater significance or import than they really are.
As we have seen, it’s easy to assume that others hold our views and beliefs. We live in our own minds, and so our own views and opinions are those we come into contact with all the time. That said, everyone has unique, different experiences which brings them to develop different opinions from our own.
Now that you have a better idea of what the false consensus is yourself, you can be more aware of when you are assuming others to share your opinion (when there may be no real reason to assume this is true).