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The Illusion of Consensus

Imagine you are at a social engagement and having a polite conversation with Charlie, a new acquaintance and possibly someone you may do business with in the future. The subject of children and their behavior comes up and Charlie says, “Since, as I’m sure you’d agree, spanking is effective at curbing bad behavior,,,”

Wait, what? You don’t agree at all! In fact, from your own experience and from everything you have read, spanking increases aggression in the long-term. Ugggh! This just got awkward.

Charlie has demonstrated the false consensus effect. He assumed that most people share his belief and has created an awkward situation, possibly damaging this new and potentially fruitful relationship by making a false assumption.

He wasn’t trying to be an agitator, he just misjudged.

The agreement assumption

The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias first identified by social psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues in 1977. It occurs when we overestimate the extent to which our own opinions, beliefs and knowledge are shared by others, often believing them to be normal or typical when they are not.

The effect is especially pronounced in situations where:

- we have a high level of confidence that we are right

- we consider the topic to be important

- we hold a minority viewpoint

- we belong to a group with others who share the belief

It frequently occurs when you assume that most people share your ideological or political viewpoint. You may like someone and find that they are a thoughtful and reasonable person, so you assume they must agree your viewpoint on say, tax policy. You feel that they surely must share the obviously correct opinion that you have. (The halo effect).

The Unintended Effects

False consensus is an assumption made at the subconscious level. When it turns out to be false, we believe the other person must be the outlier, not us. This can cause an erosion of trust on both sides. The other person may wonder what other false assumptions you are making about them.

It also exudes a sense of arrogance. The problem is not that people disagree, but that one side seems to have such a lofty view of their own opinion that they appear to discount the other side.

When it works

The causes of the false consensus effect are many. One cause is that we have a lizard brain level need to believe we are right. The feeling of knowing something with confidence releases dopamine, a pleasure-inducing brain chemical we crave.

Another cause is the intrinsic need to be accepted, to feel part of a group. To belong.

We use confirmation bias (only seeking information that confirms our belief and ignoring opposing evidence) to find others who feel the same way we do. It not only feels good, but

gives us a sense that many more people share the belief than actually do.

Mitigating the false consensus effect

To undermine the consensus effect and its consequences, take a more thoughtful approach when broaching a topic for which you don’t know the other person’s viewpoint. Ask, never assume, what they think.

This also shows that you are truly interested in what they think and they will be more willing to share their honest views.

Also, try to detach yourself emotionally from your opinion. Don’t make it part of your identity. Keep it loosely held and you will be less likely to fall into all the cognitive biases that distort your feelings and beliefs about it.

Think well and be well!

- Steve

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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