False Concensus Bias

Blog Post created by 4901314 Administrator on Jul 11, 2016

I originally had a different topic that I wanted to write about, but I haven't fully organized my thoughts yet, so I'll talk about this instead. Most of us are generally familiar with the concept of logical fallacies, which are major errors in the way that we think and percieve the world. Some of these fallacies are immediately obvious, but as human beings all of us are prone to committing several of them with varying degrees of frequency. I know that of all of the fallacies and biases that exist, the one that I'm most-often guilty of falling victim to is the False Concensus bias. Without getting too political, I'll just say that in the wake of certain recent events I have seen this particular bias rear its ugly head all over social media lately.


Here's how it works. Fundamentally, we base our interpretation of the universe largely off of our own personal experiences. We trust our senses and our memories to build a template of what is "normal" and what is "true", but in reality both of those assumptions are inherently wrong to begin with (I'll explain that more in detail in a future post). But, we go about the world with the expectation that what I see is real, what I know is true, what I think is right, what happens to me is "normal" because I am normal. We use ourselves as a baseline model for how everything should work. It never occurs to us that sometimes, just maybe, we might be atypical. We might be the statistical outliers.


My biggest error with this fallacy is that I assume that my level of intellect and my thought processes are normal. And then I'll say something, and I am rather abruptly reminded that, no, I am not typical in how I think about things. For example, my friend told me that he was enjoying watching the Lethal Weapon series on Netflix. I told him that it reminded me that I needed to buy more barbeque sauce. His blank stare informed me that my thought tangent didn't compute with him. So I broke it down: Lethal Weapon stars Mel Gibson, who also played a leading role in the movie Braveheart, where his character helped Robert the Bruce win Scottish independnce, which reminded me of Bruce Springstein and the fourth of July, which reminded me that we barbequed and used the last of the bbq sauce. It makes total sense....to me. But to assume that my line of reasoning makes sense to anyone else is false concensus bias. Another funny example is that I like to reword things to make them more grammatically complex, a game I call Über-English. I worked for a while at Dell as a trainer and they were launching a customer service campaign where: if the called into a tech support line with a problem, and we helped them fix that problem, and they had mentioned something during the call, then we could offer to sell it to them. However, it wasn't a sales program. They stressed that a lot. If the customer says no, drop it and move on. So, at the end of the training the guy from corporate asked if there were any questions. My hand shot into the air. He called on me. I said, "Just to make sure that I understand, if the customer is disinclined to acquiesce to our request to exchange monetary units for goods and/or services, we are to discontinue our commentary to persuade them otherwise?" He just stared at me and asked my boss "Where did you find this guy?". He never did answer the question.


Other more mundane examples are that my idea of idea of color is the same as yours and what I think of as blue matches what you think of as blue. Or, one of the most useless likert scales I've ever seen: the pain scale in the hospital - you know, the one with the smiley faces and the numbers. Pain is entirely subjective. I saw a lady in the ER say that her pain was a "9" and she was talking and laughing while waiting for the doctor. Meanwhile, in my past, I've had broken bones, needed stitches, and had internal bleeding. I also had a tooth infection that killed one of the nerves in my face that left me in such debilitating pain that all I could do was sit there and shake uncontrollably until it passed, unable to scream, or cry, or do anything at all. To me, from my experience, that would be a 10. But to assume that everyone else is even capable of understanding that amount of pain, let alone using it as a basis for "10" is false concensus bias.


When people discuss politics, crime, education, things of this nature, false concensus bias rears its head a lot. "Situation X cannot possibly be true because I went through a similar thing and I had outcome Y."  Okay. Great, that happened to you. But that doesn't mean that it's the same for everyone. To flip that around from another perspective, sometimes people who are the victims of violent crimes such as rape or physical abuse think that their experiences are "normal" and that this sort of thing happens to everyone, when that's simply not the case. Again, False Concensus bias is at play.


As you go about your discussions with people, pay attention to what they use as facts and justifications for their arguments. If they say "Well, this happened to me...", then they may well be using False Concensus bias.