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How False Consensus Effect Influences the Way We Think About Others

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Jan 12, 2022


Key Points

  • The false consensus effect describes the tendency for people to believe that their own opinions, beliefs, and attributes are more common and normative in others than they actually are, and that opinions, beliefs and attributes that others have but they do not share are more indicative of someone's personality in general.
  • Although researchers have been describing the projection of one’s beliefs onto others for decades, Ross et al. published an influential paper beginning a long line of compelling empirical evidence, as well as theoretical motivations for the false consensus effect.
  • Cultural transmission theory is an idea of the Chicago School that, in cities, natural areas emerge which, because of immigration Some notable theoretical models of the false consensus effect attribute the phenomenon to motivation, selective exposure and cognitive availability, responses to ambiguity, and logical information processing.
  • Research testing the false consensus effect continues to this day in subjects ranging from social media “echo chambers” to beliefs surrounding climate change.

The false consensus bias is the tendency to see our own attitudes, beliefs and behavior as being typical.

Psychologists have often attributed the false-consensus effect to a desire to view one’s thoughts as appropriate, normal, and correct, and a plethora of experimental evidence has supported the phenomenon.

The idea that people project their own beliefs and behaviors onto others has a long history. Many researchers and theorists created so-called attribution theories (e.g. Heider, 1958; Jones and Davis, 1965; and Kanouse, Kelley, Nisbett, Valances, and Weiner, 1972) to describe how typical people make inferences about and extract social meaning from their interactions with others.

Others have devised ideas of “egocentric attribution” and “attributive projection” in describing why people project their own attributes onto others (e.g. Heider, 1958; Jones and Nisbett, 1972; Cameron and Magaret, 1951; Cattell, 1944).

However, Ross et al. (1977) criticized these studies, saying that the researcher manipulates the degree of “apparent response consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus presented to the social observer” through supplying all of the relevant data to their participants.

Ross et al. (1977) coined the term false consensus effect to describe participant’s tendency to “see one’s own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, or inappropriate” (Choi and Cha, 2019).

For example, while someone who feeds squirrels, votes Republican, or drinks Drambuie for breakfast will see their behaviors as relatively common and devoid of information about his personal characteristics, someone who ignores hungry squirrels, votes Democrat, or abstains from drinking Drambuie at breakfast will see the former’s behaviors as odd and “rich with implications about the actor’s personality (Ross et al., 1977).

Someone who acknowledges that their choices as uncommon — for example, a monk or a professional tight-rope walker — may still see their choices as less deviant and rrevealing of personality than those who do not.

Factors That Influence the False Consensus Effect

Ross et al. (1977), as well as a number of researchers thereafter, have attempted to describe the factors that lead to the false consensus effect:
Motivational Processes

Traditionally, researchers who have described phenomena like the false consensus effect or “egocentric attribution biases'' have emphasized the motivation and function for the individual (Ross et al., 1977).

These biases justify the person’s feelings that their own behavioral choices are appropriate and rational responses relative to the situation rather than reflections of his personal characteristics.

Some researchers, such as Bramel (1962), Edlow and Kiesley, 1966, and Lemann and Solomon (1952) have emphasized the ego-defensive or dissonance-reducing function of “attributive projection,” particularly when there is a failure or negative information about someone's personal characteristics (Ross et al., 1977).

Ross et al. (1977) notes three types of influence or distortion involved in the false-consensus effect. Firstly, someone could distort, privately or publicly, their estimate of the degree of consensus for their responses.

Secondly, someone could report a response more common or less deviant than their authentic response.

And finally, someone could distort their actual behavior in the situation at hand by conforming to the responses of peers even if it rejects someone’s personal preferences, perceptions, and proclivities.

Selective Exposure and Cognitive Availability

Another explanation that Ross et al. (1977) presents for the false consensus effect is selective exposure and availability factors.

Selective exposure effects describe non motivational factors that can create the impression that somebody’s judgments and responses have a high degree of consensus.

For example, people tend to associate with people who share their backgrounds, experiences, interests, values and outlook. This exposure to similar people is motivated by, Ross et al. argues, creating consensus.

Ambiguity Resolution Factors

Thirdly, Ross et al. (1977) proposes that the false consensus effect can also arise from someone’s response to ambiguity as to the forces causing a situation and the meaning and implications or various responses.

Many social contexts are ambiguous and people must rely on their own characteristics to evaluate others. Facing this ambiguity, people face interpretation, estimation, and guesswork, which can affect someone's own behavioral choices and their predictions and inferences about the choices of others.

For example, someone filling out a questionnaire with the terms “often” or “typically” is influenced by their own opinions about what “often or typically means.”

Salience and Focus of Attention

Following Ross et al.’s study (1977), researchers have proposed alternative mechanisms for the false consensus effect. One such mechanism is salience and focus of attention, alternatively called the selective information treatment hypothesis (Verlhiac, 2000). This approach assumes that someone is more likely to focus attention on their preferred position than the positions of others, increasing the belief that many others share their position. The salience and focus of attention hypothesis argues that focusing attention exclusively on a single position augments perceived consensus because it is the only position that is in someone’s immediate consciousness. Meanwhile, if someone has two or more positions in mind, this may dilute how much consensus that person thinks each choice has (Marks and Miller, 1987). In addition, the salience and focus of attention hypothesis believes that someone who engages or promises to engage in a particular action makes that action more salient in their mind, as does behavior that stands out against other behavior (Marks and Miller, 1987).

Logical Informational Processing

The fourth and last putative theoretical mechanism for the false-consensus effect is logical information processing (Marks and Miller, 1987). The logical information processing model of the false consensus effect believes that active reasoning and rational processes underlie one's estimate about the similarity between themselves and others. Heider (1958) first discussed this idea in describing how “causal attribution” can influence assumptions about how common an idea is. Heider believed that if somebody attributes the causes of their behavior to a logical situational response, they may believe that their action enjoys a high consensus. Meanwhile, someone who attributes their behavior to their own dispositions may be less inclined to assume that others will have similar responses. This approach assumes that for a false consensus to arise from the so-called logical response to a situation, the actor must assume that the situation will affect themselves and others similarly (Marks and Miller, 1987).

Examples

Social Media

The traditional echo-chamber view of social media — that people surround themselves with people who share their opinions, intensifying that group’s norms and beliefs — is consistent with the false consensus effect (Bakshy et al., 2015).

Bunker and Varnum (2021) examined the association between social media use and the false consensus effect. In particular, the researchers assessed false consensus effects for how people assessed the personalities as well as motivations of those around them, as well as replicating prior work on political attitudes in 493 undergraduate students.

They found that heavier social media users generally had higher rates of false consensus effects across a number of psychological characteristics; however, the effects were smaller and weaker than assumed by the participants themselves (Bunker and Varnum, 2021).

Attitudes Toward Climate Change

Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski (2013) used the false consensus effect to describe the polarization of political opinion in discussions surrounding climate change.

The researchers also describe pluralistic ignorance, a related but different phenomenon to false consensus where most group members privately reject an opinion but assume that most others accept it, providing support for a norm that may be disliked by most people.

The researchers tested several hypotheses: that the perceived prevalence of opinions about climate change is subject to the false consensus effect; that the perceived prevalence of those rejecting the existence of climate change will be subject to pluralistic ignorance effects; and those with high false consensus in the first survey would be less likely to change their opinion than others in a follow-up survey.

Supporting the false consensus effect, people tended to overestimate the proportion of people who believed that climate change was not happening, and underestimated the proportion of people who believed climate change was either natural or human-induced.

However, in all cases, people who believed that climate change was happening were significantly more likely to believe that more people believed that climate change was also happening, and vice-versa (Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski, 2013).

Research on the False Consensus Effect

In their original paper, Ross et al. conducted four studies to attempt to qualify the false consensus effect.

Study 1

In the first of these studies, the researchers tested 320 Stanford Undergraduates by presenting them with questionnaires containing one of four brief stories. Each of these stories asked participants to place themselves in a setting where a series of events lead to a behavioral choice.

For example, the “Supermarket Story,” recounts a person shopping at a grocery store and being asked by a businessman if they enjoyed shopping at that store. The businessman then reveals that a filming crew had filmed the person’s comments and asks them to sign a release so that they can appear in a TV commercial.

Although the researchers did not immediately ask the participants to state their own choice immediately, they asked participants to estimate what percentage of their peers would sign the release, and what percentage would refuse.

The researchers then asked the participants to indicate which of these options they would personally choose and to fill out personality scales for themselves as well as “the typical person” who would or would not make the behavioral choice described in the study.

In this first study, the researchers found that participants who claimed that they would personally choose one behavioral choice would rate their choice as likely for their peers and vice-versa.

Additionally, people made strong inferences about the personality traits of the types of people they believed would choose the response they did not choose, and weak inferences about those who choose the same response as them, confirming the false consensus effect hypothesis.

Study 2

In the second of Ross et al.’s experiments, the researchers attempted to explore a more general tendency for participants to overestimate the extent to which other people shared their preferences, fears, behaviors, expectations, and other personal characteristics.

Again, 80 undergraduates completed a questionnaire with 35 “person description items” — traits such as being shy or not shy, preferences for brown or white bread, as well as physical characteristics such as eye color.

The researchers then asked participants to estimate the percentage of “college students in general” who fit into each category.

As predicted by the researchers’ hypothesis, participants who had certain traits were more likely to rate those traits as common; however, this phenomenon was stronger in some categories than others.

This phenomenon happened most strongly with items pertaining to political expectations as well as personal traits and views and personal problems.

Items pertaining to personal preferences, personal characteristics, personal expectations, and personal activities showed less support for the false consensus hypothesis.

Studies 3 and 4

Finally, in the third and fourth studies conducted by Ross et al. (1977), researchers asked participants to work with another conflict situation.

In the first experiment, the researchers asked participants to read about a hypothetical situation and indicate which of two behavioral choices they would choose, and the personalities of the “typical individual” who would make a particular decision.

Meanwhile, in the fourth study, the participants actually encountered the conflict situation described in Study 3. Again, they made trait assessments about the individuals they encountered.

In one such situation, researchers recounted a study where participants required to participate in psychological studies were encouraged to wear a sandwich board saying either “Eat at Joe’s” or “repent” by researchers, and note who spoke to them and whether their responses were positive, negative, or neutral.

The participants could either choose or refuse to participate. As with the first study, the participants were asked what percentage they believed would carry the sandwich board and to characterize the traits of those who would refuse to carry it.

In the Study 4 variant of this situation, the researchers asked participants, privately, their choices as to wearing the sign or withdrawing from the experiment.

They had previously filled out a questionnaire specifying “likes and dislikes” (Ross et al., 1977). Once again, the researchers found that the false consensus effect was apparent both in subjects who faced the hypothetical situation in Study 3 and the actual conflict situation in Study 4.

Those who refused to wear the sign thought that their choice was relatively common, and those who agreed to wear the sign believe that their response was common regardless of the message on the sign.

Also consistent with the false consensus hypothesis, participants who agreed to wear the sign tended to make stronger personality inferences about those who agreed to wear the sign and vice-versa.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, Jan 12). How False Consensus Effect Influences the Way We Think About Others. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/false-consensus-effect.html

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