How False Consensus Effect Influences the Way We Think About Others

False Consensus Effect: What It Is And Why It Happens — PsyBlog

How False Consensus Effect Influences the Way We Think About Others

The false consensus effect in social psychology is when people overestimate how much other people share our beliefs and behaviours.

The false consensus effect is the social psychological finding that people tend to assume that others agree with them.

It could apply to opinions, values, beliefs or behaviours, but people assume others think and act in the same way as they do.

It is hard for many people to believe the false consensus effect exists because they quite naturally believe they are good ‘intuitive psychologists’, thinking it is relatively easy to predict other people’s attitudes and behaviours.

We each have information built up from countless previous experiences involving both ourselves and others so surely we should have solid insights?

No such luck.

In reality, people show a number of predictable biases, such as the false consensus effect, when estimating other people’s behaviour and its causes.

And these biases help to show exactly why we need psychology experiments and why we can’t rely on our intuitions about the behaviour of others.

In the 1970s Stanford University social psychologist Professor Lee Ross set out to show just how the false consensus effect operates in two neat experiments (Ross, Greene & House, 1977).

In the first study, participants were asked to read about situations in which a conflict occurred and then told two alternative ways of responding.

They were asked to do three things:

  • Guess which option other people would choose.
  • Say which option they would choose.
  • Describe the attributes of the person who would choose each of the two options.

The results showed more people thought others would do the same as them, regardless of which of the two responses they actually chose themselves.

Definition of the false consensus effect

This shows what Ross and colleagues dubbed the false consensus effect – the idea that we each think other people think the same way we do when actually they often don’t.

Another bias emerged when participants were asked to describe the attributes of the person who made the opposite choice to their own.

Compared to other people who made the same choice they did, people made more extreme predictions about the personalities of those who made didn’t share their choice.

To put it a little crassly: people tend to assume that those who don’t agree with them have something wrong with them!

It might seem a joke, but it is a real bias that people demonstrate.

More research on the false consensus effect

While the finding from the first study on the false consensus effect is all very well in theory, how can we be sure people really behave the way they say they will?

After all, psychologists have famously found little connection between people’s attitudes and their behaviour.

In a second study, therefore, Ross and colleagues abandoned hypothetical situations, paper and pencil test and instead took up the mighty sandwich board to further test the false consensus effect.

This time a new set of participants, who were university students, were asked if they would be willing to walk around their campus for 30 minutes wearing a sandwich board saying: “Eat at Joe’s”.

(No information is available about the food quality at ‘Joe’s’, and consequently how foolish students would look.)

For motivation, participants were simply told they would learn ‘something useful’ from the study, but that they were absolutely free to refuse if they wished.


The results of this study confirmed the previous study on the false consensus effect.

Of those who agreed to wear the sandwich board, 62% thought others would also agree.

Of those who refused, only 33% thought others would agree to wear the sandwich board.

Again, as before, people also made more extreme predictions about the type of person who made the opposite decision to their own.

You can just imagine how that thinking might go.

The people who agreed to carry the sandwich board might have said:

“What’s wrong with someone who refuses?

I think they must be really scared of looking a fool.”

While the people who refused:

“Who are these show-offs who agreed to carry the sandwich board?

I know people them – they’re weird.”

People are poor intuitive psychologists

This study is fascinating not only because it shows the false consensus effect, but also because it demonstrates the importance of psychology studies themselves.

Every psychologist has, at some point, been driven to distraction when trying to explain a study’s finding by one form of the following two arguments (amongst others!):

  1. I could have told you that – it’s obvious!
  2. No, in my experience that’s not true – people don’t really behave that.

As this social psychology study of the false consensus effect shows, people are actually pretty poor intuitive psychologists.

Why does the false consensus effect occur?

Along with people being poor intuitive psychologists, there are a number of reasons the false consensus effect occurs.

  • Self-esteem: believing that other people think and act the same we we do can help to boost self-esteem (Oostrom et al., 2017). This is a clear motivation for believing for the false consensus bias.
  • Similarity with friends and family: because our friends and family are ly to be similar to us, it helps reinforce the idea that everyone is similar to us (Marks & Miller, 1987). This is not true, as the false consensus effect shows.
  • Familiarity with our own attitudes: the availability heuristic means that our own thoughts, beliefs and attitudes are the easiest for us to access so are most ly to come to mind.

Factors influencing the false consensus effect

One of the few exceptions to this is when the answer is really really obvious, such as asking people whether it is OK to commit murder.

But questions we can all agree on are generally not as interesting as those on which we are divided.

People are also more ly to assume someone who doesn’t hold the same views as them has a more extreme personality than their own.

This is because people think to themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, surely all right-thinking (read ‘normal’) people think the same way as me?

Other factors that influence the false consensus effect include:

  • Strong opinions: the stronger a person’s opinions, the more ly they are to think that others agree with them.
  • Confidence: the more confident someone is that their opinion or belief is right, the more they tend to think other people agree with them.
  • Situational factors: there are some aspects of situations that make the false consensus effect stronger, such as when a group of people experience an event together. Each will assume others enjoyed it the same amount as they did.

→ This post is part of a series on the best social psychology experiments:



Can We All Agree That the False Consensus Effect Is Fascinating — and Weird?

How False Consensus Effect Influences the Way We Think About Others

If you have ever been sure of an election result, only to be left feeling robbed, or watched in surprise as your significant other fell asleep during your favorite film, then you probably have experienced a case of the false consensus effect (FCE). 

The FCE is a cognitive bias that causes people to think their values, beliefs, actions, knowledge, or personal preferences are more widespread throughout the general population, or in other individuals than they actually are. The phenomenon was first coined by psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues back in the 70’s.

Board Certified Opinions 

In one of the first comprehensive studies into the effect, Ross asked college students if they would be willing to take a 30-minute walk around campus with a sandwich board that said “Eat at Joe’s” — a fictitious restaurant (but the students didn’t know that).

They were told that if they wore the board, they would learn something interesting afterward as an incentive. But they were also free to refuse the request.

Once they made their decision, the students had to guess at the percentage of other people who they thought would make the same choice. 

Roughly half of the students were willing to wear the board, with the other half refusing. Those who willfully wore the board thought that, on average, 62 percent of other people would do the same.

  Those who refused thought only 33 percent of others would be willing to wear the board.

In each group, students assumed that other people would make similar decisions to their own, at a far higher rate than what was actually the case. 

The study also asked the students to make assumptions about the personality traits of the type of person who would make the opposite choice to themselves. Both groups were ly to label the other as “unacceptable” or “defective” in some way. 

In the years preceding the research of Ross and his colleagues, a number of studies have investigated the FCE in a range of different contexts. 

One well-known study tested the degree to which people thought others shared their knowledge. The researchers used data from a game show called Play The Percentages.

Players could win thousands of dollars in cash prizes if they were able to guess the percentage of people in the studio audience that could answer certain trivia questions correctly.

They found that contestants would consistently overestimate the number of people who could answer questions correctly when the contestant knew the answer themselves. 

Researchers have also found that the effect is more pronounced when it comes to things that we believe to be true.

If you are environmentally minded and consider global warming a fact, then you will probably overstate the percentage of people who you think share your beliefs.

The effect is also more pronounced if your beliefs are part of a statistical minority. For example, if you are a flat earther, then you will ly overestimate the percentage of other flat earthers. 

Experiencing positive emotions increases your estimates of consensus when compared to experiencing negative emotions. The effect is also amplified when we try to speculate about the beliefs and opinions of people in the future.

Psychologists think this is because we don’t have access to information about people’s views in the future, we also assume we are correct, and that future others will have time to “discover the truth” and change their beliefs accordingly.

Sharing with the Group 

So what do psychologists think are the causes of the FCE? One of the most mentioned reasons is selective exposure. 

People generally spend the most time with their friends and family, and are ly to share beliefs and opinions about the world with those groups. This gives us a biased sample of the social sphere of opinion, and we are ly to make assumptions about the general population our interactions with others. 

Wandi Bruine de Bruin, a professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the University of Southern California, recently conducted a study investigating people’s assumptions about vaccination behaviors in the general population. She found that her subjects based their assumptions of how the general population behaved on how people within the subjects’ own social circles behaved. 

“Our findings suggest that people use the characteristics of their social contacts to assess how common these characteristics are in the population. If you are surrounded by a lot of people who got vaccinated, then you expect that more people in the overall population are getting vaccinated, as compared to someone who is surrounded mostly by others who did not get vaccinated,” she says. 

Online environments amplify selective exposure, and therefore the FCE, because we share spaces with people who have similar views and engage with materials that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. Martin Coleman, psychologist and professor of practice at North Dakota State University, has authored a number of papers that have investigated the FCE. He explains:

“I think that online environments almost certainly magnify the FCE. One of the causes of the FCE is ‘selective exposure’ (only being around and listening to -minded/ -acting individuals).

This ‘echo-chamber effect,’ where people only hear/ see their own views/actions repeated or reflected back to them, is rife on the internet.

Gamblers' Forums, Marijuana Users' Forums, Hunters' Forums not to mention all the extreme political group forums almost certainly accentuate the FCE, and lead to other phenomena such as ‘group polarization,’ where the opinions of group members become more extreme as a result of group discussion.”

Selective exposure is similar to something called the availability heuristic, which is thought to also play a significant role in the FCE. When people are asked to recall characteristics about others, they are better at remembering similarities than differences. So, if we are asked about the traits of others we are ly to align them with our own. 

Another element of explanations for the FCE is an individual’s causal focus.

If an individual is more ly to think their beliefs and actions are determined by powerful situational forces that are external to themselves, then it makes sense to think that other individuals are subject to similar forces.

If people are subject to similar external forces, then this should lead to a convergence of experience and beliefs, which should intensify the FCE. 

A recent study contrasted the FCE between Koreans and Americans. The researchers found a noticeable cultural difference in the magnitude of the FCE, with Koreans showing a stronger FCE when it came to things personal choices involving political expectations, and personal problems.

Studies in psychology have found that Eastern cultures tend to accept the power of situational influence more than their Western counterparts. Westerns are more ly to display something called the fundamental attribution error, which is a tendency to underestimate how external factors may contribute to a certain phenomenon.

Considering this, it isn’t too surprising to see that Eastern cultures extend the commonness of their choice to a greater degree than Westerners. 

Is It Important for People to Be Aware of the FCE? 

In some contexts the FCE can be harmless, when you mistakenly let your friends order for you at a restaurant. But it can also be dangerous.

As Coleman mentioned, environments such as social media can exacerbate this already-present cognitive bias, and when we take steps to surround ourselves with people who confirm what we think we already know, we inadvertently detach ourselves from the diversity of perspectives that exist within a healthy society. 


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