False-Consensus Effect – A to Z Challenge, Literary Terms

FDay 6 of the A to Z challenge and it seems a pattern is emerging… these topics will go into great detail. Yesterday was another long topic that took Star Trek to the nth degree. It’s a lot to go through, admittedly, but very useful none-the-less.

Today hopefully won’t be too bad. We’ll be discussing False-Consensus Effect, which will go a long way in understanding people, especially in conjunction with many terms this month.

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False-Consensus effect is a cognitive bias whereby a person believes that their beliefs/opinion/viewpoints are shared by a greater whole, either in a group or society. It is actually natural for people to believe their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are shared by others. This is perfectly normal, however, False-consensus effect is different as it is a bias that it is more of an extreme. This effect/bias can give a person a high dose of self-esteem.

To clarify False-consensus effect, it is not necessarily the person believes a vast majority believe as they do (though there are those who do that fall under this), but simply over-estimate how many others believe as they do. As mentioned, it is normal to believe others think as you do, but not to exaggerated amount.

It is also more than just individuals self-beliefs, it can also extend to individual group-beliefs. What the group as a whole is believed to be shared by many other, to an exaggerated extent. This is due to the fact that they all, within a group, agree with each other, and every person is surrounded by like minded people, then there must be many more people out there like themselves.

When a group with group-beliefs encounter a person that lacks the same beliefs, their immediate conclusion is that this person is defective and/or represents a minority of beliefs.

There are a number of theories to explain this. The first is the idea of Social Comparison Theory. Leon Festinger stated that individuals evaluate their thoughts and attitudes based on other people. Likely motivated by a desire for confirmation and the need to feel good about oneself.

An extension to social comparison theory is informational social influence, where someone uses other people as sources of information to define social reality and guide behavior. The difficulty in this comes that people may not properly read other people’s attitudes or what is social norms. It is this kind of thinking that can lead to Diffusion of Responsibility, that if others don’t take responsibility, then so to an individual doesn’t.

The second theory is Projection. The idea that people project their own attitudes and beliefs onto others, acting as a Defense Mechanism.

So if we take Social Comparison theory and Projection, we’ll get more an explanation.  With social comparison, people look to peers as a reference group and seek confirmation of attitudes and believes from them. In doing so, to protect their self-esteem, they might end up project their own beliefs and attitudes onto others. In doing so, they’ve effectively demonstrated False-consensus bias. They look to others who they’ve projected onto to get confirmation that they believe as they do.

Understanding this helps in many ways, but can often help in sales. The thing is, people are likely to believe their viewpoint is supported by many other, and may in turn refuse to change their opinion because of the false-consensus they have. So, in order to sale something to a person believes others wouldn’t want it, the salesmen needs to convince them that many other people have it or want it.

To this effect, dealing with a person afflicted with False-consensus, is essentially dealing with a conformist. However, there are some differences between conformity and false-consensus effect. Conformity deals with matching oneself to a real group, whereas False-consensus is perceiving others to having your beliefs. They compliment each other that a person will match themselves to a group they practically created in their mind to hold the beliefs they already have.

The contrast to False-consensus effect is Pluralistic Ignorance. This occurs when someone privately disagrees with something, but publicly agrees with it under the false notion that others feel that way, when in reality, many people feel as that person does privately but no one says anything.

Helping Writers

As people, we all desire confirmation that who and what we are is accepted by others. It is difficult at times to get that recognition. There are those of us that feel strongly about something. If it is so evident to us about that something, then we can’t be alone. More than that, if it is so right, then most others have to believe it as well, and anyone who doesn’t, chooses not to believe in it out of a selfish need.

Our feeling is enough for us to know that we are not alone. We are human beings and it is so obvious, that our feelings is evidence enough that it is shared. Anything that could contradict it, is simply biased to work against us.

This mentality is a False-consensus. Relying on personal feeling that what you think and believe is so obvious, that everyone else has to believe it. There are people like this, who go through life believing as such. Most of their actions are determined on the basis that others think as they do, so it is not really a question of being right or wrong, but instead is a duty to perform for a greater good. As they say, if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to crack a few eggs.

However, this is an extremist point of view. There are varying degrees of it, from fandom to terrorism. Not all elements of False-consensus bias is necessarily harmful, but it can be. Most of the time, it is somewhere in the middle that it can be dangerous if given the right push, but for now, it is benign.

It should be noted, that due to our normal capacity to believe that others think as we do, it is easy for others to accuse us of engaging in a False-consensus bias, even if we have evidence to support our claims. While evidence, such as studies, can prove our point, a study can easily be done using a bias from the beginning. It is good to look into how a study was conducted. Though, a person with false-consensus may counter any study stating that the researchers were engaged in a false-consensus and they themselves were biased in their conclusions, without a person actually looking at the evidence.

A good way to not fall within the trap of a false-consensus is to be open minded and mindful. To accept that people have alternative viewpoints and lifestyles, and the best you can do is to try to understand how they come to their conclusions. Not everyone has to agree with each other.

A character will simply know that what they think is shared by others, but a few will believe that their beliefs are shared by a great number. It’s this exaggerated belief that may inspire them to do things they may not have ordinarily done. This belief may be something as simple as an opinion on a movie, to a change in a political system. It may also be a group that wants the world to be a better place. They might be benign, until the right set of circumstances occur for them to do something with that view to create the change they want.

I had difficulty finding examples of this. I’m sure there are movies and TV shows out there that demonstrate this, but I was unable to find a really good example. I did however find Hot Fuzz. In the movie, the Neighborhood Watch Association attempted to maintain the perfect village. They believed that it was what the village wanted, but really they imbued that idea into everyone, then having confirmed that their viewpoint was shared by the village, did everything they could to keep that image. They convinced themselves that people were happy with the way things were and they wanted to stay happy, so long as they what was really going on. In a way, this was simply a Justification to enable them to do things as they pleased, under the guise of the “Greater Good.”

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