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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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In 1977, Ross, Greene and House performed on of the first experiments on false consensus. In the first experiment of this study, the subjects (undergraduate students at the authors' university) were presented with a story that dealt with common situations for the time period (supermarket, term paper, traffic ticket, and space program referendum). At the end of the story, there was a clear behavioral choice, and subjects were asked to indicate what percentage of their peers would be for and against the behavioral choice. Finally, subjects were asked to state whether they felt that someone who would perform the behaviors listed was a typical or atypical representative of someone of the same age and sex as they were. It was found that for each story, subjects felt that a typical person would make the same behavior decision as they did, giving us a hint that a false consensus effect may exist.
This type of study is an interesting way to observe consensus effects, though it is impossible to determine whether or not the subjects' own behavior would actually mirror the behavior indicated during testing. Secondly, it is difficult to determine why a person would say that a typical person would not do as they would, in that generally, people do not think of themselves as atypical. It seems that the only way a subject would make a counter-behavioral statement would be if they knew they were atypical members of the group.
In a second experiment (experiment 4 of the paper), subjects were actually put in situations, and later asked how many others they felt would do the same. This has the distinct advantage of including actual behavior. In order to accomplish this, the subjects were asked to wear a sign with one of two messages ("Eat at Joe's" or "Repent"). Subjects were university students who were participating under the guise of an experiment designed to study the reactions of others to the sign. Again, a false consensus effect was demonstrated, with no difference with regard to the message of the sign. This experiment is especially important in the false consensus literature because of the actual behavior dimension.
The ability of people to determine the social distribution of attitudes and behaviors and how they shaped these distributions in light of their own stance is of extreme importance in determining if there is a false consensus effect. In order to determine the ability of subjects to determine social distributions in general Nisbett and Kunda (1985) performed an experiment in which some subjects were asked about their frequency of behavior, some about their attitudes on a particular subject, and finally, two other groups were asked about their impressions of the behavior and attitudes of others, respectively. A sample of convenience of introductory psychology students was used, and subjects were asked to determine how many students at the university held the various attitudes and behaviors tested for, thus testing for consensus within an in-group. It was found that subjects were relatively good at determining the reported behavior of those in the in-group, with a trend towards over-estimation.
The second study provided support, though modest, for a false consensus effect. In this study, the subjects were asked about the same attitudinal and behavioral features as in the first study. In the second study, however, all subjects were asked about their behavior and attitudes, as well as the frequency of those same attitudes and behaviors in the university population. It was found that subjects remained fairly accurate at determining the reported behavior of their in-groups, though the mean tended towards the subjects' own views. It is important to note, however, that the frequency of the perceived behavior given by subjects more closely matched reported behavior of the group than the subject's own reported behavior, indicating that a false consensus effect is not the only force at work.
In 2004, Ames wanted to determine how the false consensus effect changed with regard to in-group versus out-group judgements. As noted above, the effect generally diminishes when a person is determining the out-group proportion. For this reason, subjects were asked to rate the typicality of various attitude and behavior elements of both an in-group (undergraduate students at their own college) and an out-group (MBA students, adolescent boys and girls). It was found that subjects believed that more of the members of their in-group held various beliefs and behaviors than members of the out-groups. There has been one important element missing in most of the false consensus literature, this study included, in that it would be interesting to determine if a false consensus effect is exaggerated for some behaviors and attitudes over others (e.g., illegal vs. illegal behaviors, political attitudes). It seems likely that if subjects already have a good idea about how many people in the population have a given attitude or belief, they would not make a false consensus error. For example, in the last election, the votes were close to half-and-half Republican/Democrat, so a subject may be able to infer how many people would respond a given way on a politically based question from this information.
One interesting piece of the problem mentioned above would be to determine if there is a false consensus effect with regard to illegal attitudes and behaviors. Wolfson did just that in 2000 when she looked at drug use as a behavior for her study (cannabis and methamphetamines). The subjects involved were first-year students at the author's university, though in this case, subjects were from many disciplines, not just psychology. Subjects were asked whether or not they had ever used cannabis or methamphetamines, and to estimate the percentage of their peers who also used. It was found that users of drugs believed that a higher percentage of their peers also used than actually used. Conversely, non-users believed that a higher percentage of their peers also abstained. The results were further broken down, in that the false consensus effect was exaggerated for the type of drug that the person used as well (cannabis users thought that more people actually used cannabis, and the same for users of methamphetamines).
One interesting application of the false consensus effect comes in the form of drug prevention advertisements. The motivational explanation for false consensus states that people are looking for social support of their behaviors, and by believing that more people partake in these behaviors is evidence of that. In terms of drug use, when anti-drug advertisements are made, advertisers should not state that drug use is on the rise, or insinuate that drug use is common, as it will provide more social support for the behavior, making it easier to justify.
The false consensus effect has important social implications, and for this reason, psychologists should continue to study this phenomenon. It would be interesting to determine if there is a greater false consensus effect for various attitude and behavior dimensions over others, including legal versus illegal, political and religious beliefs, or "everyday" attitudes and behaviors, such as breakfast choices, or leaving the toilet seat up or down. As there are an infinite number of attitudes and behaviors that people can hold, there are an infinite number of studies that could be done on this subject, but as of yet, there have been few or no experiments that determine a false consensus effect on types of behaviors and attitudes, as compared to specific ones.
It is important to reiterate that in most studies on false consensus the behavioral measures taken were self-report in nature. For this reason, it is difficult to determine if the false consensus observed is due to a false consensus, or if subjects are actually more accurate at determining the social consensus than self-reports. This concern is eased some by the Ross, Greene and House (1977) study, but more studies of this nature should be performed.
Also, the difference between in-group and out-group determinations needs to be studied more extensively. An "us versus them" picture of society is not what we would hope for when looking for a well-developed societal environment.
In sum, the uniformity of the literature on false consensus is important, as it suggests that many people over-project the proportion of their peers who concur when making attitude and behavior assessments. The fact that this occurs is an important aspect of the social experience and should be studied further.
Ames, D.R. (2004). Strategies for social inference: A similarity contingency model of projection and stereotyping in attribute prevalence estimates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 573-585.
Nisbett, R., & Kunda, Z. (1985). Perception of social distributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 297-311.
Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The "false consensus effect": An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279-301.
Wolfson, S. (2000). Students' estimates of the prevalence of drug use: Evidence for a false consensus effect. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 14, 295-298.