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False Consensus Effect: Definition & Example

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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

False consensus effect refers to the tendency of people to overestimate the level to which other people share their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Learn false consensus effects and how they are related to external factors.

Definition of False Consensus Effect

Suppose you were observing a group of females walking along a path on a college campus. An attractive male comes along and asks the females for their phone numbers. Maggie, one of the women in the group, responds by telling him 'No, thank you.' She proceeds to say that they all have boyfriends and feel like giving out their numbers to strangers would not be appropriate.

Lindsay (one of her friends) disagrees that giving her number out is wrong even though she is not single and hands the stranger a piece of paper with her number on it. Shocked, Maggie asks her other friends if they agree with her or Lindsay. Only one other girl in the group agrees with Maggie. What Maggie has just experienced is called false consensus effect.

So what is false consensus effect? Simply put, it is the tendency for individuals to overestimate the level at which other people share their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. False consensus effect is a type of bias in which we think that our own opinions, attitudes, beliefs, etc. are common and appropriate, so that others must also feel the same way. When we have a particular belief, we tend to estimate that belief to be more prevalent than it is by individuals that have an alternative belief.

Suppose that you prefer to drink iced tea over water. If you believed that the preference for those who prefer iced tea over water is higher than what it really is, this would be an example of false consensus effect. Likewise, if a person who preferred water over iced tea believed that everyone he knew preferred water over iced tea also when this is not true, this would be false consensus effect.

Examples of false consensus effect include believing that all people think that saving the environment is important because you feel that way, believing that all of your married friends must want to have children, because you believe that the only benefit of marriage is procreation, believing that all of your friends think that beer tastes better than wine because you believe beer is better.

Factors that Influence False Consensus

Suppose your best friend asked you to go to the store to get her some candy, but didn't tell you what kind to get. How would you choose which candy to buy? Most of us would think of the candy we like and buy it for our friend. After all, you two are very similar in many ways so you should like the same candy. Since you know the deliciousness of your favorite candy, getting her things that you like seems like a better alternative than picking up random candy that you've never tasted.

In situations such as these where there is limited information to work with, taking a good guess based off our own values and beliefs seems like a better alternative than making a wild guess. We are more likely to use false consensus when we attribute the way we behave to external factors, which are factors that are related to the situation and not to the individual. This is because external factors are also presumed to affect others.

Let's look at an example of how attributing your beliefs to an external factor can lead to false consensus effect. Suppose that you went to a play and thought that the play was horrid due to the protagonist's poor acting skills. Here, you attributed your belief that the play was not good to an external factor: the protagonist's acting skill. Because you incorrectly view the actor's skill as completely objective, you logically assume that everyone else must also have thought the play was horrid. This is an example of false consensus effect.

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