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The Social Psychology of a Nation Divided

The fallible nature of human social perception and the 2016 election

geralt / pixabay
Source: geralt / pixabay

For decades now, social psychologists have demonstrated that human social-perception systems are fraught with bias and error. We tend to overestimate the importance of traits in causing outcomes of others (Ross, 1977), we tend to treat others who are members of artificially created groups different from our own in negative ways (Billig &Tajfel, 1973), and we tend to see people in groups defined as “different than our own” as being “all the same” (Haslan et al., 1996). Why are there so many social problems in this world? One answer is this: Our social-perceptual and social-cognitive systems are pretty messed up. And that is when they are working properly.

The false consensus effect (Ross et al., 1977) is one such basic social-perceptual bias that can help provide insights into current events. The false consensus effect is the tendency to overestimate the degree to which others share your thoughts, attributes, and beliefs. In a detailed study on this topic (conducted by my social-psychologist wife, Kathy - some years back!), members of a large group of college students were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a large battery of social issues (e.g., abortion, drug legalization, etc.). After they provided their own responses, they then were asked what percentage of other people would have likely responded as they did themselves. The results? Striking. Across pretty much every issue studied, people believed that a majority of others would agree with their stance. So someone who was pro-abortion, for instance, tended to think that most others were also pro-abortion - while those who were against abortion, on the other hand, were quite certain that the majority of folks out there agreed with their stance (see Bauman et al., 2003).

In Kathy’s research, the false consensus effect was found for a wide array of social issues, including: abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, medical research, cosmetic research, drug legalization, pornography, insanity plea, lowered drinking age, seat belt laws, women in combat, condom distribution in schools, affirmative action, gay marriage, and prayer in schools. For each of these issues, participants’ estimates of what others thought were strongly (regardless of accuracy) a reflection of what people believed themselves. The false consensus effect is, thus, a ubiquitous feature of how we think about social issues.

The False Consensus Effect and the 2016 Election

As I’ve written about in a prior post, reactions to the 2016 election results provide us with a unique social psychological situation that has broad-reaching implications for our future. One issue that has emerged might be called the How in the world did those people vote that way!? issue. More so than in any other election that I can think of, people are genuinely outraged. And while the outrage is multi-faceted, a core part of the large-scale outrage pertains to the fact that people are beside themselves in trying to make sense of how the people “on the other side” voted as they did. Trump supporters have little empathy for why someone could have possibly voted for Hillary - while Hillary supporters are largely outraged by the large number of people who voted for Trump. In many ways, this issue is the prominent issue for the USA at this time. It is national issue sine qua non.

Understanding the false consensus effect provides us with one way to understand what’s going on - at least partly. Leading up to the election, Hillary supporters were surrounded by other Hillary supporters. They held values and beliefs that they deemed as obviously true and that had to be shared by anyone who had thought about the issues at all. Hillary supporters believed that most others were also Hillary supporters and that, as such, she would win the election. I know this, because I fell into this category myself! This tendency to think (even if incorrectly) that a majority of others share your beliefs and values is pretty much exactly the false consensus effect.

Trump supporters had their own beliefs and social groups in the time leading up to the election.They likely connected with others who mostly shared their ideas and beliefs. They likely believed, partly because of what they heard in their own particular circles, that a majority of folks agreed with their take on things - they thought that their choice was the correct choice and that anyone who looked carefully at the situation would have come up with the same decision. Again, this is exactly how the false consensus effect plays out.

An adverse outcome associated with false-consensus reasoning is this: When our beliefs about what others think prove to be incorrect, we can find ourselves shocked. After all, if I’m pretty sure that most folks agree with me, then finding out that, in fact, most folks strongly disagree with me can be a rude awakening. The false consensus effect, then, can lead to very strong and even polarizing disagreements and negative interactions across social groups. And, to some extent, we are seeing this currently in what feels so much like a nation divided.

Bottom Line

The follow-up to the 2016 election has been nothing short of divisive. People across the political spectrum are shocked at “the other side” - finding themselves unable to process how so many people hold values, etc., that are so discrepant from their own. This large-scale discord owes partly to the false consensus effect - the tendency for people to over-believe that others must share their thoughts and values. Like it or not, the false consensus effect is one of many common social psychological biases that shapes how we understand our social worlds on a daily basis. Any and all efforts to move forward as a nation would be wise to take a lesson from social psychology - which has a long-standing history of helping shed light onto large-scale social discord and disagreement.


Bauman, K.P., & Geher, G. (2003). The Role of Perceived Social Norms on Attitudes and Behavior: An Examination of the False Consensus Effect. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 21, 293-318.

Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.

Geher, G., Bauman, K.P., Hubbard, S.E.K., & Legare, J. (2002). Self and other obedience estimates: Biases and moderators. The Journal of Social Psychology, 142, 677-689.

Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316, 998-1002.

Haslam, Alex; Oakes, Penny; Turner, John; McGarty, Craig (1996). "Social identity, self-categorization, and the perceived homogeneity of ingroups and outgroups: The interaction between social motivation and cognition". In Sorrentino, Richard; Higgins, Edward. Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. 3. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 182–222.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10). New York: Academic Press.

Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(3), 279-301.

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