The False Consensus Effect (Bias)

What is False Consensus Effect?

The False Consensus Effect, also termed as False Consensus Bias, is about how we can tend to inaccurately perceive the degree to which our beliefs, opinions, preferences, values and habits are normal and shared by others. It is a social bias that can lead us to believe in the existence of a consensus that is not real, a consensus that does not actually exist. It is usually found in group contexts, whereby a given group will believe that their views are shared by the larger population, and although this belief may not necessarily be deemed to refer to the opinions of the entire population, it will result in an exaggerated perception of the extent to which those beliefs are shared when compared to the actual amount or proportion of people outside the group who do in fact share the same views. It will also often be the case where those who do not hold the same beliefs will be considered to be erred in their ways and reasonings (If you don’t believe what we believe there is something wrong with you). It can lead to overconfidence (another widespread bias) and as an attribution bias, it refers to systematic errors we make when we attempt to evaluate and explain our behaviour and that of others.


Who developed the thinking/research around this bias and when did this bias come to the fore?

Wallen (1943) was possibly the first social scientist to discover that when people are asked to estimate the proportion of others who possess a particular attitude toward an object, perceivers who themselves hold that attitude generate higher estimates than do perceivers whose attitudes are different. In 1977 Ross, Greene, and House dubbed this the false consensus effect; they said that people “see their own behavioural choices and judgments as relatively common while viewing alternative responses as uncommon”.


What are the advantages of the consensus bias? 

Having researched false consensus effect extensively I have not managed to come up with any positive benefits or advantages (pros) except for my own personal impression that a good and noble cause may receive support, and as long as the cause is pure the false consensus effect may prove useful in order to gain more support from the masses. Protestors who truly believe that they are right and that it is undeniably logical in their minds that the entire population do and should agree wholeheartedly, make for very powerful and committed social movement leaders. This, of course, works both ways.


What are the disadvantages of the consensus bias?

The cons however are, I believe, more evident. I would imagine that the Trump saga will be cited as a pretty solid example. Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to confidently distinguish between real and fake news, the impression is that Trump’s credibility and popularity are in fact dwindling, however, the pro-Trump supporters seem convinced that 1. He is doing a good job and 2. He is doing it for the good of the nation, while the Anti-Trumpsters are convinced that he is the Anti-Christ and both sides seem certain that their respective opponents are insane.


What professional experience can I relate this bias to?

My personal experience of the false consensus effect in the context of a particular professional project was mind-boggling. In my SWOT/PESTLE analysis I identified risks and unfortunately, some actually came true. However, I had not considered this psychological aspect and in hindsight, I can now see that the four individuals (myself included) had four very different opinions about how a small business is formed, and all seemed equally convinced that the others shared their exact viewpoints. I have successfully started small businesses from scratch with no funds and generated millions in profitable turnover. I did it by focusing on building organised activity systems and processes that led to attracting clients and having the systems in place to service them.

I expected that the Project Manager would contribute to these processes, I expected that the Customer Service expert would also contribute. What I discovered was that the Project Manager saw no need for internal project (or risk) management processes, the customer service expert also believed that this service would only apply to the clients of our clients, but not to our clients. The fundraiser is still convinced that a business (and any correlated activities) can only begin when there is money in the bank (I actually agree that starting with funds makes launching easier). Even as I write this I am still convinced that my approach could have worked and was the most logical and promising and that the other three approaches could not. The truth is probably yet another variation, it is the combination of leadership, collaborative teamwork and project management (including risk management) that truly makes the impossible possible, so it is likely that either of the four perspectives may have proven more successful had we chosen to agree on one vision and implement it together.


What lessons did I learn from this experience?

There is always a lesson to be learned and this particular lesson proved costly, not because we didn’t work well as a team, or because we didn’t succeed in launching and generating profitable revenue, that part was more successful than anticipated. Our failure was due to putting our trust in a dishonest third party (despite having anticipated that same risk) who stole most of the revenue … and that was also a pretty good example of the overconfidence bias. I will revisit this same experience future posts, as it represents another learning experience in the context of Leadership & Management and Corporate Culture worth sharing.

In the end, this was a very significant learning experience which was well worth the effort and subsequent reflection.

What do you think? Do you have a story or a comment to share?