The False Consensus Effect (and how to avoid it)

March 8, 2016


Humans are notoriously prone to several cognitive biases that lead us to erroneous conclusions. In science and in life, the ways our brains work do not always lead us to observe properly or to interpret our observations correctly. Several dozen cognitive biases stand in between our minds’ apparently normal modes of operation and the truth, and the institutions of science are meant to help correct for them. However, in everyday life, we as laypersons fall prey to numerous cognitive biases without the benefit of correction by a community of scientists all intent on understanding the world as it is. Instead, in society at large, cognitive biases often feed upon each other, exacerbating a population’s misunderstanding of the truth. One might argue that religion is a consequence of several cognitive biases, perhaps the largest of which is one that can most easily be corrected for by some rather superficial research. Even skeptics, atheists, and humanists, are prone to similar cognitive biases.

              The false-consensus effect occurs when we erroneously attribute our beliefs about something to a larger population. Any number of factors may be responsible for this bias, and scientists have not isolated a single cause. Freud’s theory of “projection” may be one explanation, although a number of related cognitive biases including the “availability heuristic” may be linked to the false consensus effect. I recently came across a rather stark instance of this bias in a discussion with someone regarding the recent Supreme Court vacancy and imminent nomination. The gentleman I was arguing with insisted that the Court was entirely too liberal compared to the rest of the US population. His evidence for this was that it continually upheld the Affordable Care Act despite the general consensus among US voters that it should have been struck down. I found this an odd claim and in a few minutes of internet research found that his proof was simply false, or at least a terrible oversimplification. While approval for the ACA has often been below 50%, polls regarding the Supreme Court’s actions on “Obamacare” are most relevant to my interlocutor’s claim. The last Supreme Court decision on provisions of Obamacare was King v. Burwell which challenged the subsidy provisions for purchasing health coverage in the exchanges established under the act. Without getting into the details of the ACA or that specific legal challenge, this most recent ruling upheld the provisions, substantially keeping Obamacare as is.

              King v. Burwell was a blow to opponents of the ACA, and was rendered by what most regard as being a majority conservative court. Polling at the time of the King v. Burwell decision showed that a majority (62%) did not want the Court to strike down the language in question, and wanted to keep the ACA substantially as it was. Which is strange because most people still do not favor the ACA itself. A number of cognitive biases may be at work in the general population, because more nuanced polling seems to indicate that most provisions of the ACA, the policies underlying it and the spirit of the law itself are viewed favorably. When taken as whole, however, terms like “debacle” and “train-wreck” are often used, although most of those polled also cannot point to specific harms they have experienced. So why did most people approve of the Supreme Court’s handling of the Burwell case, despite their overall disapproval of the ACA. As with my interlocutor, it seems likely they have fallen prey to some form of false consensus. There are clues to this in the polling done about the ACA.  In a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll from 2015, opposition to the ACA appears to be generally partisan and not linked to actual harms or benefits experienced by respondents. Tellingly, although 44% of Republicans polled said the ACA hurt them and only 8% of Democrats said it hurt them, a nearly identical percentage of members of each party indicated the act had “no direct impact” one way or another (61% of Republicans, and 69% of Democrats).

              One has to wonder whether party affiliation, ideology, and perhaps watercooler discussion with people of the same ilk are leading people to view the ACA according to false consensus. This appears to be the case since Democrats polled were three times as likely to say the act somehow helped them than did Republicans, although as noted above there was for most no direct impact at all from the act. The consensus about the ACA changes radically when people are asked about the law as a whole as opposed to its various provisions taken separately.

              My debate with the gentleman referenced above took place in social media, and it would appear that the tendency of people to affiliate with others of like ideological mindsets exacerbates the false consensus effect. We see our self-selected community of peers validating our opinions, and it becomes easy to leap to conclusions about the general population’s opinions based upon that, but it would be bad science. Polling is by and large a successful and scientific means of determining actual consensus, and we should also try to step outside our little circles of agreement and engage with others of differing standpoints as well, reading where we can the opinions and arguments of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately, when I pointed to the poll that indicated that the majority of the public sided with the Supreme Court, and thus it seemed likely the court is not more liberal than the general population at least using this example, he did not reply. The thing about cognitive biases is that, once corrected for, we get a bit closer to the truth. Learning how to correct for them is the tricky part. Engaging constructively with others, and being open to challenge of our own biases, are large parts of the solution.