We tend to base our answers, assumptions, and perceptions on our collective experiences.
If you’ve never talked to a wide selection of black people about their run-ins with police, judges, etc, you’ll assume more about how blacks views the issue of politic brutality.
If you’ve never made the effort to discover what particular people think about that particular topic, you’re opening yourself up to ignorance.
How you judge their reactions, the severity of the topic, and their words depends on how informed you are. They define how broad and deep your experiences are.
This lack of broad experience leads to what’s called the False Consensus Effect.
It’s what leads you and I to overestimate how many people share our views, and what kind of people they are who do.
Studies have shed light on how this cognitive bias affects us all. Lee Ross, the professor of social psychology at Stanford University, ran a series of studies asking students to choose a response then predict the popularity of their chose.
For instance, would you run around campus with a sign on you? If you answered “no,” how many people would say the same thing, and what kind of people would say “yes”? Research into the false consensus bias has shown that not only do we overestimate how many people side with us, we also assume the traits of those who disagree.
Politically, it would look like this: you believe that abortion is wrong. “It’s murder,” you say. When asked how many people share your views on abortion, you’ll undoubtedly pump up the number. It should be noted that your estimate doesn’t have to be over 50% for it to be considered false consensus bias. Next, you’re asked what kind of people agree with you, what’s their personality and character traits?
You’d probably say they’re caring, revere life, moral, merciful, etc. Only positive attributes would be used to describe them.
Now, what about those who disagree with you? You might say their selfish, irresponsible, immoral, apathetic, etc. The false consensus bias has seeped into your views.
Lee Ross, summed up this effect quite nicely in his research…
“[people] tend to perceive a ‘false consensus’ – to see their own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, or inappropriate.”
How we view others’ divergent behavior is also interesting. Ross highlights that there’s a cognitive disconnect between how we view our actions and theirs…
“…we consistently see our peers’ behavior as the product and reflection of broad, consistent personal dispositions while we attribute our own responses to situational forces and constraints.”
Simply put: you’re biased toward yourself. You’ll excuse your behavior and actions as a result of situational decision making, not long-held personal beliefs.
The assumptions of vast consensus lead to this cognitive distortion. If you believe yourself to be a part of the majority, then anyone who differs from your belief is deviant in some form or fashion. They’re not acting rationally, but irrationally and with bad intentions or motives.
Ross even mentioned that the false consensus effect could lead its victims to side with the majority held response at the time. So instead of puffing up your belief’s acceptance, you’d just align yourself with the widely held belief at the moment.
And all this is the result of a subjectively biased interpretation of subjectively picked information.
Politically, this effect leads us to overestimate our belief’s, party’s, and movement’s popularity while leading us to see differentiators as abnormal and negative. You can guess how this would influence the outreach efforts, rhetoric, tone, and behavior of those suffering from false consensus bias.
Social media definitely doesn’t help this cognitive distortion, which is why it’s so important not to live in an echo chamber.