False Consensus Effect

What Is False Consensus Effect?

Social scientists have described the notion of false consensus as an egotistic bias to believe that others in a group of which one is a member will respond like oneself—for example, in agreeing or refusing to engage in a particular behavior or in endorsing or rejecting a particular attitude or opinion statement.

The False Consensus Effect (also called False consensus bias) is the tendency for individuals “to see their own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances, while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant and inappropriate” (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977).

Operationally, false consensus effect occurs when a person engaging in a given behavior estimates that same behavior to be shared by a larger proportion of some reference group than is estimated for that reference group by a person engaging in an alternative behavior (Mullen et al., 1985).

Thus, according to the false consensus effect, people see their own behavior as typical and assume that under similar circumstances others would behave in the same way. Explanation for false consensus effects was first published by Ross, Greene, and House in 1977.

To demonstrate the false consensus effect, Ross, Greene, and House (1977) asked Stanford students to engage in a number of activities, one of which was to walk around the Stanford campus with a big sign reading “Repent!” Students either agreed to engage in this activity or refused and then were asked to estimate the proportion of Stanford students who would agree.

The students who agreed made an average estimate that 63.5 percent of Stanford students would agree, whereas, among those who refused, the average estimate was 23.3 percent. That result led to a definition of the false consensus effect (as stated in the beginning of this entry):

  • “False consensus refers to an egocentric bias that occurs when people estimate consensus for their own behavior. Specifically, the false consensus hypothesis holds that people who engage in a given behavior will estimate that behavior to be more common than it is estimated to be by the people who engage in the alternative behavior” (Mullen et al. 1985, 262).

Sherman, Presson, and Chassin (1984) suggested three types of explanations for false consensus effects: self-enhancement, motivation to view the other as oneself, and need for social support and validation. Their results indicated a greater likelihood of false consensus when judges were given success feedback (self-enhancement motivations) about their task performance.

The False Consensus Effect Applied to Organizations

Whether because of congeniality, habit, time constraints, or groupthink Opens in new window, we all fall prey to false consensus bias when we project the way we think onto everyone else and assume that everyone else must certainly agree with us. At the organizational level, it can occur in groups when no one speaks up to challenge the prevailing view, a situation termed as groupthink (see Groupthink Opens in new window).

Evidences prove that good decisions rarely arise from false consensus. Alfred P. Sloan, the chairman of General Motors in its heyday, once adjourned a board meeting soon after it began.

  • “Gentlement,” Sloan said, “I take it we are all in agreement on the decision here … then I must propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about” (Lehrer 2009, 218).

Here the CEO, before taking a vote, wonders if apparent consensus is real or not.

Approaches to Dealing with False Consensus Bias

A board could certainly do as Sloan did; however, most nonprofit boards do not meet as frequently as corporate boards, so this solution might not be practical. Akin to having a triple-helix conversation, Charan (2001) suggested an effective strategy to avoid false consensus bias is to engage in decisive dialogue—“a process of intellectual inquiry rather than of advocacy, a search for truth rather than a contest” (76).

Four characteristics mark an effective decisive dialogue:

  • Openness: There is no predetermined outcome; there is an honest search for alternatives. Questions like “What are we missing?” draw people in and signal interest in hearing all sides.
  • Candor: A willingness to speak the unspeakable, to expose what needs to be exposed, to air the conflicts that undermine consensus. People express their true opinions, not just what they think the group wants to hear.
  • Informality: Formality suppresses candor. Carefully scripted, formal presentations signal that an outcome is preordained. Informality encourages candor and reduces defensiveness. Group members feel more comfortable asking questions and reacting honestly.
  • Closure: Although informality is good for drawing everyone into a conversation, closure is needed to impose discipline. At the end of the meeting, everyone should know what was decided and what will happen next as a result, including who needs to do what by when.