In this world we are many people and each of us thinks differently. In the same way that no two people are the same, no two minds are the same, but they are relatively similar in terms of beliefs, predilections and so on.

However, sometimes we think that more people think like us than actually are. This is basically what has been called the false consensus effect , which we will address in more detail below.

What is the effect of false consensus?

The effect of false consensus is a cognitive bias, which consists of a tendency to think that many people have opinions or think in a similar way to oneself . That is, it consists of overestimating the degree of agreement that others have with the same ideas, attitudes or behaviour.

People want to feel supported, so it is common to assume that their own beliefs, predilections and habits are also shared or carried out by other people. In this way, by thinking that you are not the only one who thinks or acts in a certain way, you maximize your self-confidence.

This phenomenon is not pathological, nor is it a real problem in itself. Everyone wants to think that their way of being is neither ‘weird’ nor ‘wrong’. What could be considered as problematic is the effect of thinking that many more people think in a certain way, thinking that there is a more than extensive consensus.

History of the phenomenon and research

Although it was not Sigmund Freud who called it the ‘effect of false consensus’ nor did he give a concrete definition, the Austrian psychoanalyst did put forward, at the beginning of the last century, some hypotheses that could explain why people ‘find’ more support than they really do from their opinions and way of being. According to him, this phenomenon was a defence mechanism known as projection , that is, attributing one’s own ideas and feelings to others, for better or for worse.

However, it was in the 70’s when the delimitation of this concept was carried out, in addition to being addressed in research. The researchers Lee Ross, David Greene and Pamela House carried out, in 1977, a study in which they asked university students to answer two questions:

First, the students were asked if they would agree to carry a sign that said ‘repent’ and walk around campus with it. Some of these students agreed to wear it, others chose not to. After this, they were asked to estimate how many people they thought had answered the same thing as them, i.e. that they had said that they would or would not, as the case may be, wear the above-mentioned sign.

Both the students who had said they would not take it and those who were willing to do so tended to overestimate the number of people who would do the same as they had said . In the case of the students who had agreed to carry the poster, on average they calculated that it would be 60% of students who would also agree to do so. In the group of students who had refused to wear the poster, they said that only 27% of the students would dare to wear it.

Why does this cognitive bias occur?

Several hypotheses have tried to explain why people overestimate the support their opinions and other aspects of their minds and behaviour have in society as a whole.

Firstly, it has been suggested that spending time with people who do think alike or share many things in common with you can reinforce the misconception that many people also think alike. It can also be said that thinking that we are not the only ones who think this way is a key factor in building and maintaining self-esteem .

Another approach, related to what has been said above about Freudian projection, is that the effect of false consensus emerges as a defence mechanism. It is a spontaneous and automated behavior that seeks to protect self-confidence. No one wants to be the one who makes mistakes, and one of the best ways to “confirm” that one is right is to find support, although overestimated, in the other individuals who make up the complex society in which we live.

Seeking a social circle in which people have the same opinion or share the same views about reality is a way of protecting the delicate emotional balance , as well as reinforcing social relations with the peer group.

It should be said that another aspect that is of vital importance in the emergence of this phenomenon is that there is a lack of information, not necessarily bad, in terms of real support for one’s opinions. It is normal that when having certain beliefs the individual looks for opinions that follow the same line, ignoring those that can refute or demonstrate how much support one really has (motivated reasoning).

Does everyone manifest it?

Although, as we have already mentioned, the effect of the false consensus is not something from the other world, given that everyone wants to find great support, even if they do not really have it, it can be said that sometimes not everyone expresses it. This is where the absence of this effect can be related to the presence of psychopathology, or a thought pattern that could end up being pathological.

Tabachnik’s group discovered in 1983 that some people did not have this tendency to exaggerate the support of others. In fact, they seemed to believe that nobody supported them, or that their ideas were completely out of line with most people’s thinking .

Tabachnik conducted a study whose sample consisted of people who had been diagnosed with depression and others who did not have the disorder. These people were asked to judge a number of attributes about themselves and also how others perceived those same attributes.

The results showed that subjects with depression judged their attributes differently than those without the diagnosis. This may be related to the presence of biases present in mood disorders that go in the opposite line to the effect of the false consensus described here.

Real-life examples of the effect of false consensus

One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is in the field of sport. Many people have a favourite football team and it is very common for all of them to believe that their team is the most popular in the neighbourhood, city or region where they live, regardless of the statistics or how full the stadiums are when a match is played.

It is also possible to see it in politics. It is often thought that one’s own ideology, or at least some of its points, are widely supported by the rest of the citizens. This is especially visible when a highly politicised person has a profile in a social network and sees that most of his followers think the same way.

To conclude the article, we will mention a case of this real effect that has been related to the economic crisis that emerged in 2008. It is thought that one of the determining factors in the economic destabilization in the markets was that that year many investors made inaccurate predictions of how the markets would evolve in the years to come.

They said this thinking that other investors would take the same actions in the markets, that is, they believed in a false consensus. Due to this situation, the markets evolved in an unexpected way, ending up in the economic disaster that we all know.

Bibliographic references:

  • Polaino-Lorente, A., & Villamisar, D. A. G. (1984). Experimental analysis of the motivational and cognitive deficits of ( Learned Helplessness ) in a sample of non-depressed adolescents. Cuadernos de Psicología, 11, 7-34.
  • Ross L., Greene D. & House, P. (1977). The false consensus effect: an egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 13, 279-301.
  • Tabachnik, N., Crocker, J., & Alloy, L. B. (1983). Depression, social comparison, and the false-consensus effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(3), 688-699.