The False Consensus bias influences people’s thoughts and actions in various domains of life. It can cause someone with extreme political beliefs to incorrectly assume that the majority of the population agrees with them and shares those beliefs, even though most people don’t. Or can influence racist people to believe that their racist views are prevalent among their peers, even when that isn’t the case.
The False Consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate how much others are like them, in terms of sharing things such as their beliefs, values, characteristics, experiences, and behaviors. This means that the False Consensus effect leads people to assume that others are more similar to them than they actually are.
The False Consensus effect can be attributed to several potential psychological mechanisms:
- Motivated reasoning: This reflects people’s desire to feel good about themselves, primarily by believing that their opinions, experiences, and behaviors are normative and common, so they conform with others. This is associated with self-enhancement and the self-serving bias, which involve increasing people’s self-esteem.
- Biased exposure to information: Most notably, people tend to spend more time interacting with individuals who share their opinions, experiences, and behaviors than with those who do not, which can bias their perception of what most people are like. Furthermore, people may experience similar biased exposure to information when it comes to other things, such as articles that they read or shows that they watch. This phenomenon itself is associated with various concepts, such as selective exposure to confirmatory information, for example through echo chambers on social media.
- Cognitive availability: People generally find it easier to think about their own opinions, experiences, and behaviors than about those of others, which can lead them to project those viewpoints and experiences onto others. This is associated with the availability heuristic, which causes people to rely more strongly on information that is easy for them to bring to mind.
- The focus of attention: People are generally more focused on what they are thinking and doing than on what others are thinking and doing, which causes them to assume that others are thinking and doing the same thing that they are. This can be due to various reasons, such as that information about oneself is generally more salient to people than information about others.
- Anchoring: When individuals try to assess other people’s perspectives when it comes to things such as their thoughts and experiences, they may use their own perspective as an initial anchor, and then fail to adjust from it sufficiently. This type of flawed anchoring and adjustment can also lead to other forms of assumed similarity between one’s current perspective and some other perspective.
HOW TO DEAL WITH THE FALSE CONSENSUS EFFECT?
To reduce the False Consensus effect, you can use the following debiasing techniques:
- Increase awareness of this bias: For example, you can learn what this bias is and what causes it, identify specific situations in which you might display it, and actively ask yourself whether you might be experiencing it. However, keep in mind that simply being aware of this bias is often insufficient when it comes to avoiding it since people can continue to display it even when they are aware of it, and even when they are told that their estimates are biased.
- Engage with alternative perspectives: You can do this in various ways, such as by talking to people with different perspectives than you, or by thinking about what those different perspectives might be. This can be beneficial in various ways, such as by making you aware of these other perspectives, making it easier to consider them, and increasing their salience.
- Compare your perspective with those of others: For example, you can try to identify positive aspects of alternative perspectives, or negative aspects of your own perspective. This can help you engage with the alternative perspectives and can help you assess the involved perspectives in a rational manner.
- Consider what caused you to develop your perspective, and what could cause others to develop a different perspective: For example, you can consider what aspects of your personality led you to act a certain way, and how other people’s personalities might differ from yours in a way that leads them to make different choices.
- Create psychological self-distance from your perspective: You can accomplish this, for example, by using second and third-person language when thinking about your views (e.g., “why do you believe this?”).
- Change your motivational considerations: For example, you can focus on how just because your opinion is different than the opinion of the majority, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with you.
- Use general debiasing techniques: These include, for example, slowing down your reasoning process and improving your decision-making environment. Furthermore, you will likely particularly benefit from debiasing techniques that address the specific causes of your false-consensus effect (e.g., waiting to make an estimate when you’re in an environment that minimizes pressure from close peers).
- Look at concrete data: For example, if you’re unsure what proportion of the population supports your favorite political candidate, then instead of estimating, try to find reliable sources that provide the relevant information.
Understanding the False Consensus can help you understand and predict people’s behavior, including your own, even when you don’t reduce this bias directly, but you should remember that there is substantial variability in whether and how people display it.
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