False Consensus Effect Definition
The false consensus effect occurs when we overestimate the number of other people (or extent to which other people) share our opinions, beliefs, and behaviors. Thus, sometimes individuals tend to believe that others are more similar to them than is actually the case. For example, if I enjoy eating chocolate ice cream cones, I will tend to overestimate the percentage of other people like me who also enjoy eating chocolate ice cream cones relative to the percentage that do not.
This effect is likely to occur most often when considering opinions, beliefs, and behaviors that are important to us. Thus, consider another example: If you believe a particular favorite television program is funny, you will tend to overestimate the number of other people like you who also believe that program is funny relative to those who do not.
False Consensus Effect Background and Evidence
The false consensus effect was first described by social psychologists in 1977. In one of the first research projects demonstrating the effect, researchers approached college students as they walked across campus and asked the students to advertise a restaurant by wearing a large sign that said, “Eat at Joe’s.” As you might expect, some of the students agreed to wear the sign, while others did not. All the college students were later asked how many other students they estimated would make the same decision they did (either to wear the sign or not to wear the sign).
The false consensus effect was demonstrated when two results occurred: First, the students who agreed to wear the sign reported they believed that more than half of the other students on campus (62%) would also agree to wear the sign. However, the students who did not agree to wear the sign reported they believed that more than half of the other students on campus (67%) also would not agree to wear the sign. Thus, both groups of students, those who agreed and those who disagreed to wear the sign, overestimated how many other students would behave just as they did.
Why Does False Consensus Effect Occur
One reason why this effect is likely to occur is that the people with which we regularly come into contact (such as our friends or classmates) are often like us in some ways. Thus, sometimes we use our knowledge of those similarities to make judgments or estimations of additional ways in which our friends, classmates, or other people, might be similar to us. Not to mention the fact that it is often easier for us to remember instances in which other people agreed with us about something rather than disagreed with us.
It is also possible that our believing that other people are similar to us can serve to boost our self-esteem. So assuming that others share our opinions, beliefs, and behaviors helps us feel good about ourselves and our opinions, beliefs, and behaviors.
False Consensus Effect Implications
This effect demonstrates a type of bias to which individuals fall prey in their typical thinking, thus often referred to as a type of cognitive bias. Unfortunately we fall prey to a number of such biases. This is problematic when we consider how often in our daily lives we make judgments about others, either privately within our own thoughts or in conversations with others. Because such judgments are likely to influence additional thoughts about these people, as well as our behavior toward them, it could easily be the case that we have beliefs about others that are incorrect and then possibly behave toward them in ways that are inappropriate.
- Alicke, M. D., & Largo, E. (1995). The role of the self in the false consensus effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31, 28-47.
- Fabrigar, L. R., & Krosnick, J. A. (1995). Attitude importance and the false consensus effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 468-479.
- 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.