Our Relationships Are Threatened by the False Consensus Effect
When’s the last time you felt surprised because your colleague or a loved one had a different perspective than you did? How much of a conflict did that cause?
We overestimate, often greatly, the extent to which our friends, family, colleagues, and other people agree with us. That creates a sense of a false alignment with them in our heads. Behavioral scientists call this tendency the false consensus effect.
How the False Consensus Effect Harms Romantic Relationships
A close friend related to me how she and her husband of over five years started to talk one day about their ideas of the future and the world around them as they prepared to try to conceive their first child. She felt shocked by many things she heard from her husband, and learned that he felt very differently about some things she felt strongly about.
They hadn’t really talked deeply in a long time, just going about their day-to-day activities and living their lives together. She learned that he had grown more materialistic, prioritizing pragmatic material benefits and hedonistic pleasures. By contrast, she had focused increasingly on self-awareness and mindfulness, working on the personal growth of her heart and mind.
Since both were introverted, and had separate circles of friends and hobbies, they didn’t notice how their perspectives, values, and goals had changed over time, causing them to drift apart from each other.
That conversation gravely tested their marriage. They went to couples therapy weekly for more than a year, trying to figure out what to do about their differences. As of today, they are still together, but decided to avoid having children for the next two years while trying to figure out if their marriage will last. That false image of the spouses’ visions of the future and the world around them highlights the inherent dangers of the false consensus effect.
The Impact of False Consensus Effect on Society at Large
According to research, the false consensus effect damages our society as a whole, exacerbating social polarization and causing people to spend more time in polarized communities.
In turn, increased participation as part of polarized communities exacerbates the false consensus effect. Online platforms of such communities encourage greater polarization by facilitating the ability to coordinate more extreme perspectives together with ease.
The death penalty, gun regulation, teaching morality in public schools, abortion, defense spending: studies have shown that we greatly overestimate the extent to which other people share our opinions on these and other loaded political topics.
Intriguingly, studies also show that the false consensus effect extends beyond politics and social issues, to relationships with other people, and into the relationship with the divine. Study participants generally believe that their personal opinions on important social and ethical issues align with the opinions of God.
This research illustrates the danger of dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. These mental blindspots impact decision making in all life areas, ranging from the future of work to mental fitness. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective and pragmatic strategies to defeat these dangerous judgment errors, such as by constraining our choices to best practices.
Ways to Counter the False Consensus Effect
Do you remember all the times that you felt surprised when your friends, family, professional colleagues, civic or political collaborators, or others with whom you are in a relationship surprised you, especially in a negative way?
It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It means you were wrong about these people, that your mental model of them was broken. Our Autopilot System – the intuitive gut reaction part of our brain — tries to flinch away from that feeling, ignoring it for the sake of retaining our mental model of how we would like those other people to be.
To solve the false consensus effect, we need to take the uncomfortable step of acknowledging this feeling of surprise and use the strategy of considering our past experiences. This strategy is one of many debiasing techniques that helps defeat cognitive biases.
When I talked to my friend about the situation with her husband, she admitted to me later that after she went to therapy and talked with her husband, she could look back and notice numerous signs that the two of them were drifting apart.
However, she hid that information from herself: it was too much to bear, and she didn’t want to deal with it, preferring to focus on her daily activities. Her husband fell into the same dangerous pattern of flinching away from the signs he saw as well.
Looking back, both recognized they would have been so much better off bringing these facts out into the open and discussing them earlier. Learn from their mistakes rather than suffering by making yours: look back at your past experience in relationships, notice moments of unpleasant surprise, and address them before your relationships suffer a major crisis. It might sound simple, yet it is surprisingly effective in practice.
Proactive Strategies to Make Better Life Decisions
Besides looking backward, which is a critically important but reactive response, you can also take the proactive step of looking forward and address the false consensus effect via the debiasing strategy of making predictions about the future.
How many people do you think will support the death penalty in the next Gallup Poll on this topic? Make a prediction, write it down, and then see whether it matches reality. You can even use this tactic for information you don’t currently know, but can find out: in this case, “the future” relates to your future knowledge of this question.
What do you think the last Gallup poll on abortion showed about how many people think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances? No, don’t Google it, first write down your answer. Now, take a look at the result. Using such methods, you can improve your ability to address the false consensus effect around social issues.
And next time you’re at a party and arguing about such topics, suggest everyone does the same thing: writes down their prediction, and then looks it up. You’ll be the life of the party! But seriously, this approach is a great way to subtly help others fight against the false consensus effect.
The false Consensus Effect is a mental blindspot where people tend to overestimate how much others agree with them about a situation. If not addressed in a timely manner, it can inflict serious harm on your personal and professional relationships. Additionally, it increases polarization and division of society at large. An effective way to avoid false consensus is to recall unpleasant past experiences in which you were confronted with dissenting opinions and address them before it’s too late. Instead of assuming that people agree with you on a particular matter, try to anticipate their response before asking them what they think. This will keep the reality of the situation at the forefront and deter the feeling of false consensus.
We overestimate the extent to which others agree with us. That creates a sense of a false alignment with them in our heads. Behavioral scientists call this tendency the false consensus effect. Click To Tweet
Image Credits: Mikhial Nilov
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps legal professionals address bias as an expert legal consultant. He serves as the CEO of the decision making and bias consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A best-selling author of 7 books, he is especially well-known for his global best-sellers Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019) and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020). His newest book is Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in prominent venues. They include Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fast Company, Boston Globe, New York Daily News, Fox News, USA Today, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from his research background as a behavioral scientist. After spending 8 years getting a PhD and lecturing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served for 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University’s Decision Sciences Collaborative and History Department. A proud Ukrainian, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio (Go Bucks!). In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/newsletter/.