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The False Consensus Effect

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False consensus, Pluralistic Ignorance, Spiral of Silence

How popular are your beliefs?

Do most people think like you or do they think differently?

In this article we’ll explore these questions and more using two cognitive biases and a theory from social science:

Let’s begin:

False consensus effect

In 1977 Stanford University Social Psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to understand biases in human decision making.

In the first experiment participants were asked to read about situations in which a conflict occurred and then they were told of two alternative ways of responding to the situation. They were then asked to do three things:

  1. Guess which option other people would choose
  2. State which option they would choose
  3. Describe what kind of person would likely choose each of the two options

Funnily enough, most people thought other people would choose exactly what they chose, and when describing the kind of person who would choose differently, they tended to use extreme language.

In the second experiment they asked students if they would be willing to walk around campus for 30 minutes wearing a sandwich board that said “Eat at Joes”.

The students were then asked to estimate what percentage of their peers would agree to do the same.

  • About 53% of people agreed to wear the sign, and these people estimated that approximately 65% of people would do the same
  • About 47% of people refused to wear the sign, and these people estimated that approximately 69% of people would do the same

Both of these experiments demonstrates the false consensus effect.

What is the false consensus effect?

The false consensus effect is that we tend to overestimate the extent to which other people think like us, and share our:

  • Attitudes
  • Beliefs
  • Desires
  • Preferences
  • Opinions
  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Habits
  • Values

The false consensus effect leads us to think that:

  • The way we think is “logical”, “rational”, “commonsense”, and if we believe a certain thing than other people most likely do too, or at least should, and this creates in our mind the illusion of a consensus that doesn’t necessarily exist, a “false consensus”
  • Most people would make the same decisions we would, and go through the same thinking process, in a given scenario
  • Those who don’t agree with us, or think differently than us, or would make different choices than we would in a given scenario, are stupid, illogical, unreasonable etc.

Why we tend to draw a false consensus

We tend to overestimate the extent to which other people think like us because:

  • We tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us, who believe and value the same things we do, and then gradually overtime we tend to think that “everyone” thinks that way
  • Due to confirmation bias we seek out information that supports our beliefs, whilst simultaneously avoiding/ignoring/rejecting information that contradicts what we believe
  • It’s natural for us to think that our beliefs are “logical” and “rational” and “commonsense” (otherwise we wouldn’t believe them) and then we tend to assume that “most people” likely believe these things too (If something is “logical” and “rational” and “commonsense” – why wouldn’t other people agree with us and believe what we believe?)
  • We don’t have access to the innermost thoughts of other minds, nor can we see from other people’s perspectives, so if something seems obvious or desirable to us, we often conclude that it must seem that way to others too

Conclusion

Your thoughts, beliefs, opinions etc. aren’t necessarily as common as you think they are.

Just because you and your friends, family, workmates etc. all think or feel a certain way, that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of others do too, or that there is a “consensus”. Remember the “consensus” of Hillary Clinton being elected US President in 2016?

The truth is we are bad at guessing:

  • What other people think
  • What other people believe
  • What other people will decide or do in a given scenario

On the flip side of that coin we have pluralistic ignorance…

Pluralistic ignorance

Emperor's New Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s fable The Emperor’s New Clothes two fraudsters promise the emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent – while in reality, they make no clothes for him at all (the Emperor is naked) however because everyone is afraid of being seen as stupid or incompetent, this makes everyone believe that the clothes are invisible to them.

When the emperor finally parades around naked before his subjects in his new “clothes”, no one dares to say that they don’t see a suit of clothes for fear that they’ll be seen as stupid. Instead they say:

“Magnificent!”

“Excellent!”

“Unsurpassed!”

“What colors!”

“What a design!”

Until finally a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

This story is a great example of pluralistic ignorance.

What is pluralistic ignorance?

Pluralistic ignorance occurs when a majority of group members privately disagree or disapprove of a group norm, but go along with it and publicly support it, because they incorrectly assume that the majority of the group accepts it.

What causes pluralistic ignorance?

Here are some examples of what might cause pluralistic ignorance, and why you might incorrect assume that your views are in the minority, when really they’re the majority.

  • Maybe you don’t understand something in a lecture, or in a work meeting, but no one else is speaking up and asking any questions, so you assume that everyone else “gets it”
  • Maybe you don’t agree with a new strategy at work, but no one else is speaking up and saying anything, so you assume everyone must be fine with it
  • Maybe a norm or a tradition is older than any member of the group, or one member of the group is dominant and can force their attitudes on the rest of the group

False consensus vs pluralistic ignorance

False consensus is almost the polar opposite of pluralistic ignorance:

  • False consensus bias leads people to falsely assume that the majority of people agree with them
  • Pluralistic ignorance leads people to falsely assume that the majority of people disagree with them (when the majority actually privately agrees with them)

The problems with pluralistic ignorance

  • Pluralistic ignorance causes people to stay silent when they should be speaking up (people are likely to stay silent and to keep their opinions to themselves if they feel that they’re radically different than their peers)
  • People are afraid to voice their opposition, or to go against the group for fear of condemnation, criticism, judgement, ostracism
  • Pluralistic ignorance can lead groups to persist in policies and practices that the majority don’t believe in any more

How to counter it

Don’t assume that others agree, support or understand what’s going on in a group situation (even if they’re silent, nodding, not asking questions etc.) Instead ask people individually in private if they agree, and if you think it’s safe, confess that you don’t.

Finally, related to pluralistic ignorance is the spiral of silence…

The spiral of silence

Spiral of Silence

The spiral of silence is a theory which states that people are less likely to share controversial or unpopular opinions due to a fear of social isolation.

  • If an opinion is controversial, unpopular or politically incorrect, people are less likely to express it for fear of being attacked, condemned, rejected etc.
  • If an opinion is popular, widespread and accepted, people are likely to be confident, proud and vocal when expressing it

This makes sense. These days anyone who holds opinions which are controversial, unpopular, politically incorrect or fall outside of the Overton window (“the range of ideas that are tolerated in public discourse”) need to be very careful with their words or else they’re likely to be attacked by the media, and online by the masses of SJW’s, keyboard warriors and Twitter mobs.

Was it safe to admit if you were a Trump supporter in America in 2016? (I don’t know I’m not American but I’m guessing not)

How do people know what opinions are popular?

How do people know what opinions are popular and what they “can” and “can’t” say?

Largely that perception is formed by the media. If the media makes it seem like “everyone” (or the vast majority) of people hold a certain opinion, and anyone who dares to disagree with abortion, gay marriage, immigration, legalization of X etc. is by default a racist, sexist, homophobe, than of course people are going to be reluctant to publicly share their opinions.

Note: The perceived majority opinion, isn’t always the majority opinion (see: Pluralistic ignorance)

If the media and/or social media gives a disproportionate amount of airtime to a vocal minority, it can make that group seem like the popular majority.

Also, if the vocal minority is quick to attack, protest, shout down and Twitter storm anyone who dares to disagree, it can make them seem more powerful than they really are.

How the spiral of silence is set in motion

The more an opinion is pushed by the media and social media as:

“Everyone agrees”

“Everyone wants this”

“It’s unanimous”

…the more momentum it gains, and the more self-confident those are who hold those views, whereas the less an unpopular opinion is voiced, the less likely others are to voice it, especially if they’re afraid to speak up for fear of being attacked, demonized, ridiculed etc.

Exception

Countering this theory is that there is always a vocal minority (which can be overly represented by the media) and most people seem a lot more comfortable sharing unpopular opinions online through social media and online forums etc.

Recap

In this article you have learned:

False consensus effect

We tend to overestimate the extent to which other people think like us and agree with us

Pluralistic ignorance

Often a majority of group members privately disapprove of a group norm, but go along with it and publicly support it, because they incorrectly assume that the majority of the group accepts it

The spiral of silence

If an opinion is controversial, unpopular or politically incorrect, people are less likely to express it for fear of being attacked, condemned, rejected

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