False Consensus Effect

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False Consensus Effect: A Focused Review of Research
Categorization and social projection are important ways that people can more successfully navigate their social environment. People need to know that there are others in their in-group that share the same attitudes and behaviors as they do. If people are unable to determine how many people in their environment share their attitudes and behaviors, it would be more difficult to engage in social situations without offending or contradicting others. For this reason, false consensus is an interesting offshoot of this important idea. The false consensus effect refers to the fact that people have a tendency to over-estimate the proportion of the population that shares an attitude or behavior with him or her.
Much of the research on false consensus has demonstrated that people tend to over project how many members of their in-group are likely to share their attitudes and behaviors. This effect diminishes when comparing to an out-group. It is thought that this occurs because people feel that people who they do not consider to share a group identity with will likely have different basic attitudes and behaviors than they.
An important aspect of the literature is that the vast majority used college students as the primary subjects. While this is extremely convenient for researchers, it may not give us a clear picture about false consensus, in that it is possible that college students' limited "real-world experience" may be influencing their projections. Also, almost all of the behavior measures were taken by self-report. This is somewhat necessary, as many of the behaviors would be difficult to measure directly (e.g., drug use) without a breach of ethics. This too is a source of potential source of error, it is likely that the self-reports would under-estimate the proportion of the population that engages in a particular behavior.
The astute reader may notice that this review does not include any papers that did not find a false consensus effect. The reason for this is not that this paper is not representative of the literature, but rather, that it is. The uniformity of the literature suggests that the phenomenon is fairly common. Some interesting arguments as to why this is are motivational or cognitive in nature. The motivational premise is based in the idea that people are motivated to believe that they have a place in their social environment. This argument is a based in self-justification, in that if many people share a given belief or behavior, it makes it easier to justify that this attitude or behavior is either right, or not as bad as it might seem.
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