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What Is the False Consensus Effect?

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  • Written By: Steven Symes
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2014
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    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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The false consensus effect involves a person or group of people who overestimate how many other people agree with their viewpoints on specific subjects, such as politics or cultural practices. An overestimation of how many people have performed similar negative acts or engage in negative behavior also constitutes a false consensus. Regular interaction with those who hold opposing or different viewpoints can help a person or group avoid being affected by false consensus.

People or groups who are affected by the false consensus effect mistake an opinion or belief held by a minority of the population as being popular. False consensus can also lead a group or person to overestimate how much of a majority of the general population holds a belief, believing an idea to be more popular than it actually is. This can lead a group to voice its opinions publicly, only to find a majority of the population disagreeing with and otherwise reacting negatively toward the group.

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When a person or group has a strong desire to be well-liked in a community, they can often fall victim to false consensus effect. If the person or group perceives that the community holds to certain ideals or approves of certain behavior, the individual or group might engage in certain activities perceived to be acceptable, doing so in extreme ways. Because of the false consensus effect, a majority or large section of the population might reject or be offended by the behavior of the individual or group, actually causing them to be liked less than before.

The isolation of a group from outside influences also leads to the false consensus effect. A group might be geographically cut-off from outsiders, living in a remote area, making communication with outsiders difficult. Beliefs regarding outside influences, such as a general suspicion of media outlets, also isolates a group from outside influence, even if the group geographically is not isolated from surrounding populations. Extreme views held by the group are then falsely perceived to be held by a greater portion of the surrounding population, which would be confirmed as false if the group were to openly communicate with the general population.

Individuals or groups who have engaged in negative actions or display negative behavior also might be affected by a false consensus. For example, a person who picks other people’s pockets might justify his behavior, thinking that a majority of other people would steal from others if presented the opportunity. A group of college students might engage in risky behavior such as experimenting with illegal drugs, thinking that the majority of their peers either engage in the same behavior or agree with their actions.

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