False consensus is the inaccurate perception that our own beliefs are similar to those of others, when in fact they are not similar (Ross et al. 1977), and the tendency to see our behavioral choices and judgments as common and situationally appropriate, while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, and/or inappropriate (Mullen et al. 1985; Bosveld et al. 1994). Overestimation inaccuracies and deviance perceptions are based on a social judgment projection that opinions, beliefs, values, traits, and behaviors like one’s own are more prevalent than they in fact are. This “egocentric self-anchor” or tendency to overestimate inaccuracies apparently exists even when the individual’s attribute is in the minority (Sanders & Mullen 1983).
Two major predictors have been offered as a partial explanation for false consensus: the notion of self-serving bias and the notion of available heuristic. Self-serving bias refers to the human tendency to take personal credit for successes (as the result of our own disposition). It also refers to the individual’s tendency to ignore, rationalize, and/or deny responsibility for failures, often viewed as dependent upon situation (Sherman et al. 1984). We tend to overestimate the typicality of our undesirable actions or unsuccessful efforts. This cognitive bias is generalized to an evaluation of ambiguous information to benefit self-interest (Miller & Ross 1975).
Available heuristic connotes a bias toward estimating an outcome’s probability based on simplicity. It is easy to imagine. Available heuristics are often emotionally tinged. Imagined consensus lends an implicit aura of support from others for our position and/or behaviors. This sense of certainty reduces the need to alter ourselves or to change the status quo, a basic assumption of consistency theories. Other explanations for the false consensus phenomenon include selective exposure to and recall of others who agreed with our own choices and judgments. This personal strategy enables us to appear “normal,” provides self-enhancement, and satisfies need for social support.
Further theoretical elaboration of false consensus comes from studies examining concepts such as need for uniqueness, threats to the self, self-schemas, differential construal, embarrassment, overconfidence, attitude importance, social distance, outgroups, monetary incentives, and selectivity processes (Bosveld et al. 1994; Jones 2004). Availability of similar others facilitates false consensus. Availability of dissimilar others depresses the effect. False consensus tends to be most prevalent concerning issues on which there is wide diversity and hetereogeneity of opinion range (Bosveld et al. 1994). Perceived social distance, or overall level of perceived similarity between self and typical target group member, reflects the extent to which self is perceived as generally representative of the group. Perception of social distance is theorized to mediate the false consensus effect, further explaining why ingroup false consensus exceeds outgroup false consensus – more social distance is perceived with the outgroup (Jones 2004).
Evidence suggests a cultural influence on self-serving biases. The phenomenon is routinely found in studies focusing on western individuals, but may not generalize to Asians. Markus & Kitayama (1991) noted that many Asian cultures stress the harmonious and interdependent collective, whereas American culture emphasizes unique individuals who seek independent self-fulfillment. Kitayama et al. (1997) studied American and Japanese university students and found American situations tended to be conducive to self-enhancement and that Americans took advantage of those situations. Japanese situations fostered self-criticism and stimulated Japanese engagement in self-criticism. Historical and cultural processes are thought to influence collectively shared ideas of the self as independent or interdependent and ultimately reinforce psychological tendencies and processes, thus extending and sustaining cultural norms and values from generation to generation.
False consensus has been linked with social issues, such as tobacco, alcohol and drug consumption, beliefs concerning welfare reduction, presidential preferences during election campaigns, body shape and weight, risky sexual behavior, and depression (Mäkelä 1997).
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