“Of Course, Most People Feel Like I Do” — False Consensus Bias & You

person with head in their hands. Over their normal face is a pasted-on cartoon angry face
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Not everyone thinks the way you think, knows the things you know, believes the things you believe, nor acts the way you would act.

Remember this and you will go a long way in getting along with people.

-Arthur Forman

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False consensus bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to see our own behavior and opinions as more common than it actually is. In other words, all else being equal, we tend to overestimate how many people will handle a situation the same way we would or have similar beliefs to us.

The phenomenon was first named and found in a now-classic 1977 study.

In this study, participants were asked to read about a conflict and were presented with two potential ways of handling that conflict. They were then asked to do the following three tasks:

  • Identify which option they would choose
  • Guess the option that others would choose
  • Describe the person who would choose each of the two options, what they were like, their personality qualities, etc.

This study found that most of the participants studied believed that other people would choose the same option they did — regardless of which option they selected. Additionally, their descriptions of the people who chose the other option trended rather negative.

This effect has been found in countless studies since. Frankly, false consensus bias is part of why psychological research is so valuable. Research is one of the best tools we have towards challenging what we consider “obvious” and piercing that veil of false consensus. Granted, this can only happen if scientific inquiry and the scientific method are given the respect it deserves (so some folks will be unreachable even so).

But without any sort of empirical objective way to test the frequency of beliefs, we’d be completely left to the mercy of our biases.

Anyway, it can be jarring when you encounter people who disagree with you on things — and particularly so if they seem to be pretty decent, likable people — but it’s also inevitable that we underestimate how often others, even others we would otherwise like, disagree with us on issues.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Psychic City, a Psychic State mystery

 

Non-Fiction:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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