In 1977, Social Psychology did a very interesting experiment: a number of university students were recruited and asked if they would be willing to carry a sign with the sign “Repent” all over the campus.
Each participant was free to choose and, as we can imagine, some accepted the proposal and others don’t. The interesting thing is that everyone was then asked to estimate how many people had accepted or refused to carry the sign across the campus. Then a very curious trend was discovered: the students who accepted thought that 60% of the people would also be willing to do so while, among those who had rejected the offer, they thought that only 27% would be willing to carry the sign. In other words, each group (those who accepted and those who rejected) overestimated the number of people who could make their own decision.
This phenomenon is known as “False Consensus Effect” and refers to our tendency to overestimate the degree of agreement that other people have for our ideas, attitudes and behaviors. In other words, we tend to think that our habits, preferences and opinions are shared by a majority of people. Obviously, it is an erroneous belief that artificially maximizes the trust we have in ourselves.
Somehow, Freud was one of the first to refer to the false consensus effect. However, he considered it more as a defense mechanism, exactly, he referred to the projection. That is, the fact that we do not accept some of our own characteristics or those of our environment because they are too threatening and we tend to project them on other people. For example, a woman who is dissatisfied with her relationship but does not want to accept this reality, may see problems that do not exist in other relationships.
However, it is worth to clarify that the false consensus effect refers only to an overestimation of the extent of one’s beliefs. For example, religious fundamentalists are aware that not everyone shares their vision of the world but, when they are victims of false consensus, they tend to overestimate the number of people who really share their values.
The causes: From insecurity to lack of information
False consensus is a multidetermined phenomenon. It is known that in some cases this bias lays its foundation in our desire to maintain a positive assessment of ourselves. That is, if we believe that our self-esteem is being threatened or if we want to reinforce any idea about which we do not feel particularly safe, we tend to think that many people follow our steps. In this way we give ourselves confidence and maintain our mental balance.
In other cases, the false consensus is delimited by the lack of information. In fact, it is known that conservative people read conservative press and religious fundamentalists are limited to their literature. Therefore, their convictions are reinforced as they do not find more balanced information that allows them to look at the other side of the scale.
Finally, another cause of false consensus lies in a locus of control external. That is, if we think that our decisions and behaviors are largely determined by the social environment in which we operate, then it is not illogical thinking that many other people are in our same circumstances and, therefore, have similar ideas and behaviors to ours.
Greene, R. L. & House, P. (1977) The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 13: 279-301.