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Relationships

Why You Might Be Wrong About What Your Spouse Thinks

How the false consensus effect impacts relationships.

Key points

  • The false consensus effect causes people to overestimate the extent to which others agree with them.
  • The effect exacerbates social polarization and can cause people to spend more time in polarized communities.
  • Strategies to counter the false consensus effect include acknowledging past experiences of surprise and discussing differences openly.
  • The false consensus effect is not limited to politics, but extends to relationships and religious beliefs.
Mikhial Nilov
Mikhial Nilov

When’s the last time you felt surprised because your colleague or a loved one had a different perspective than you did? How much of a conflict did that cause?

We overestimate, often greatly, the extent to which our friends, family, colleagues, and other people agree with us. That creates a sense of a false alignment with them in our heads. Behavioral scientists call this tendency the "false consensus effect".

How the False Consensus Effect Harms Romantic Relationships

A close friend related to me how she and her husband of over five years started to talk one day about their ideas of the future and the world around them as they prepared to try to conceive their first child. She felt shocked by many things she heard from her husband and learned that he felt very differently about some things she felt strongly about.

They hadn’t talked deeply in a long time, just going about their day-to-day activities and living their lives together. She learned that he had grown more materialistic, prioritizing pragmatic material benefits and hedonistic pleasures. By contrast, she had focused increasingly on self-awareness and mindfulness, working on the personal growth of her heart and mind.

Since both were introverted and had separate circles of friends and hobbies, they didn’t notice how their perspectives, values, and goals had changed over time, causing them to drift apart from each other.

That conversation gravely tested their marriage. They went to couples therapy weekly for more than a year, trying to figure out what to do about their differences. As of today, they are still together, but decided to avoid having children for the next two years while trying to figure out if their marriage will last. Such are the dangers of the false consensus effect.

The Impact of False Consensus Effect on Society at Large

According to research, the false consensus effect damages our society as a whole, exacerbating social polarization and causing people to spend more time in polarized communities.

In turn, increased participation as part of polarized communities exacerbates the false consensus effect. Online platforms of such communities encourage greater polarization by facilitating the ability to coordinate more extreme perspectives together with ease.

The death penalty, gun regulation, teaching morality in public schools, abortion, defense spending: studies have shown that we greatly overestimate the extent to which other people share our opinions on these and other loaded political topics.

Intriguingly, studies also show that the false consensus effect extends beyond politics and social issues to relationships with other people and to relationship with the divine. Study participants generally believe that their personal opinions on important social and ethical issues align with the opinions of God.

This research illustrates the danger of dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. These mental blindspots impact decision-making in all areas of life, ranging from the future of work to mental fitness. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective and pragmatic strategies to defeat these dangerous judgment errors, such as by constraining our choices to best practices.

Ways to Counter the False Consensus Effect

Do you remember all the times that you felt surprised when your friends, family, professional colleagues, civic or political collaborators, or others surprised you, especially in a negative way?

It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It means you were wrong about these people, that your mental model of them was broken. The intuitive, gut reaction part of our brain tries to flinch away from that feeling, ignoring it for the sake of retaining our mental model of how we would like those other people to be.

To solve the false consensus effect, we need to take the uncomfortable step of acknowledging this feeling of surprise and use the strategy of considering our past experiences. This strategy is one of many debiasing techniques that help defeat cognitive biases.

When I talked to my friend about the situation with her husband, she admitted to me later that after she went to therapy and talked with her husband, she could look back and notice numerous signs that the two of them were drifting apart. But she hid that information from herself: it was too much to bear and she didn’t want to deal with it, preferring to focus on her daily activities. Her husband fell into the same pattern of flinching away from the signs he saw as well.

Looking back, both recognized they would have been so much better off bringing these facts out into the open and discussing them earlier. Learn from their mistakes rather than suffering by making your own: look back at your past experience in relationships, notice moments of unpleasant surprise, and address them before your relationships suffer a major crisis. It might sound simple, yet it is surprisingly effective in practice.

Proactive Strategies to Make Better Life Decisions

Besides looking backward, which is a critically important but reactive response, you can also take the proactive step of looking forward and addressing the false consensus effect via the debiasing strategy of making predictions about the future.

How many people do you think will support the death penalty in the next Gallup poll on this topic? Make a prediction, write it down, and then see whether it matches reality. You can even use this tactic for information you don’t currently know, but can find out: in this case, “the future” relates to your future knowledge of this question.

What do you think the last Gallup poll on abortion showed about how many people think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances? No, don’t Google it. First, write down your answer. Now, take a look at the result. Using such methods, you can improve your ability to address the false consensus effect around social issues.

And next time you’re at a party and arguing about such topics, suggest everyone does the same thing: writes down their prediction, and then looks it up. It could be a fun party trick, but is also a great way to subtly help others fight against the false consensus effect.

Conclusion

The false consensus effect is a mental blindspot where people tend to overestimate how much others agree with them about a situation. If not addressed in a timely manner, it can inflict serious harm on your personal and professional relationships. Additionally, it increases polarization and the division of society at large. An effective way to avoid false consensus is to recall unpleasant past experiences in which you were confronted with dissenting opinions and address them before they're repeated. Instead of assuming that people agree with you on a particular matter, try to anticipate their response before asking them what they think. This will keep the reality of the situation at the forefront and deter the feeling of false consensus.

References

Tsipursky, G. (2020). Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters. Wayne, NJ: Career Press.

What Is the Function of Confirmation Bias? Uwe Peters

Croskerry, P., Singhal, G., & Mamede, S. (2013). Cognitive debiasing 2: impediments to and strategies for change. BMJ quality & safety, 22(Suppl 2), ii65-ii72.

Cantarelli, P., Bellé, N., & Belardinelli, P. (2020). Behavioral public HR: Experimental evidence on cognitive biases and debiasing interventions. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 40(1), 56-81.

Soll, J. B., Milkman, K. L., & Payne, J. W. (2015). A user's guide to debiasing. The Wiley Blackwell handbook of judgment and decision making, 2, 924-951.

Tsipursky, Gleb. "Top 10 Cognitive Biases to Avoid in Dating" (2023) Top10.com, retrieved from https://www.top10.com/dating/top-10-cognitive-biases-to-avoid-in-dating

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