Beware the False Consensus Effect

by | Sep 28, 2022


A few months ago my nephew sent out the following question to a text group:

Out of these topics, which of these are the most important for you? 

1. Pro life/ pro choice 

2. Climate change 

3. Wealth inequality 

4. Social justice(Racism/sexism/etc.)

5. Gun control/ gun rights 

6. Foreign policies/Geopolitics

7. Other (explain why) 

I quickly picked Climate Change and, in doing so, thought “Duh” and figured everyone else would choose Climate Change as their big issue.

But I was wrong. Not everyone picked climate change. In fact, I’ve surveyed dozens of people about my nephew’s list over the past months, and well less than half picked climate change.

I bet you’ve experienced something similar — you think that your view or opinion is commonly-held but then learn that it’s not. It’s such a common experience that it has a name: “The False Consensus Effect.”

Specifically, the False Consensus Effect occurs when we see our own opinions, behavioral choices, and judgments as “relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, or inappropriate.” Source.

The effect was first described in a 1977 paper based on a series of experiments where participants read about a conflict situation and were asked which of two resolutions they would pursue. Then the participants were asked to guess what proportion of others made the same decision they did. The results? Regardless of the solution chosen, the participants “tended to believe that the majority of people would also select that option. The researchers also found that people tended to give more extreme descriptions of the characteristics of people who would choose the alternate options.” Source.

What you can do about the False Consensus Effect:

  • First, be aware of this bias. Know that you tend to overestimate the extent to which others agree with your views.
  • Second, find and engage with news sources and individuals who don’t share your views. Engage in dialogue (rather than debate) and seek to learn about their perspective.
  • Seek out data. If I had picked climate change and didn’t learn of others’ perspectives, I would have ignorantly continued thinking everyone shared my view. Yet, had I just Googled “top issues for voters” I would have found that climate change isn’t at the top of the list.

1 Comment

  1. Knowing about the False Consensus Effect also allows for someone to experience humility.


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