If there’s one thing people never lack, it’s biases in how we think. One of these biases is what psychologists call the false consensus effect, where people tend to overestimate the extent to which other people share their views. To put it another way, people tend to assume that everyone else thinks the way they do.
It’s easy to put this bias in a political context, but the false consensus effect pops up in other areas of life too. For example, teenagers who smoke tend to assume that other teenagers and adults smoke more frequently than they really do.
Generally, even telling people about the false consensus effect, or giving them statistics about how many people agree with them, doesn’t make the effect go away. This finding led the researchers behind it to conclude that the false consensus effect was “ineradicable.”
In recent years, psychologists have become increasingly interested in how social media contributes to false consensus. If people use social media to put themselves in “bubbles” or “echo chambers,” that has the potential to compound their belief that most other people agree with them.
A study published this month found that social media can indeed exacerbate the false consensus effect. It found that people with more homogeneous online social networks were more likely to overestimate the extent to which the public at large shared their opinions. In other words, surrounding yourself online with people who are like you might give you the false impression that everyone thinks the way you do.
The study also found that having a tendency to avoid ambiguous information increased people’s susceptibility to the false consensus effect. Therefore, not engaging with information that challenges one’s viewpoint plus having a homogeneous online network may be a recipe for falsely assuming that your opinions are representative of the majority.
For those who want to fight this cognitive bias, these results suggest a way of doing so: seek out people who are different than you and information that doesn’t fit neatly into your preconceived beliefs. We may not be able to get rid of the false consensus effect completely, but we can do our best to expand our worldview.
Image: Rhett Maxwell