'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to the own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.' - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The Problem With False Consensus

by Ethan Glover, Tue, Nov 10, 2015 - (Edited) Wed, Nov 11, 2015

Oftentimes people will hide their own personal beliefs for fear of being different. Instead, in public, they espouse the opinions of what they perceive to be the majority. They do this because they think if it's the majority opinion, it must be correct.

This phenomenon is what's called, pluralistic ignorance. When it's combined with other logical fallacies, things get a little... messy.

We all know about projection. When a person judges another after projecting their own beliefs onto them. They in effect, judge themselves when talking about another.

Mix these two together, and you get the false consensus effect. People look to their peers for what they should believe but project their own beliefs on their peers. A sort of confirmation bias born out of good intentions.

The danger in the false consensus effect is that it can create a false reality in people's minds. Or what is otherwise known as naive realism.

Everyone, at some point, comes to believe that what they believe is an objective truth. Anyone who agrees with them is being rational. Anyone who disagrees with them, irrational.

Unwinding the Tangle

So, how does this all come together in a comprehensible point?

By employing a false consensus about the beliefs of people around us, we get the idea that our peers all agree with us. But, when there is a blatant disagreement, we label the dissent as irrational. Not necessarily because the person disagreeing is in a minority. It may be that everyone disagrees, but no one else is willing to be so direct about it.

When most people seek to hold the beliefs of the majority (pluralistic ignorance), they fail to see what the majority actually believes (projection).

To make matters worse, this all begins to isolate the way people think. The availability heuristic is when people form their opinions and thoughts by what's currently on their mind.

If you assume everyone who openly disagrees with you is irrational, you tend to dismiss their opinions. Instead, when speaking on subjects, you recall only what and who has agreed with you in the past.

This then distorts your perception of how diverse in opinion your social environment is.

An Example

To make better sense of all this, let's use a real-world example. To be specific, the ongoing tiff between Free Keene and Stop Free Keene. Or to be more specific, between Ian Freeman and Matt Schmidt.

It is impossible to know the motivations behind why these two act the way they do. We can't make any assumptions about pluralistic ignorance.

We can see projection. Both Ian and Matt like to point out the aggressive and rude methods of the other. From Ian's pointless "ambush interviews," to Matt's late night horn blaring. Both acts are the same. Each would argue otherwise and claim that they other is worse.

We can also see a false consensus. Both Ian and Matt are able to see that the other isn't as popular or influential as they think. Yet, they both like to point out that the other believes they are popular.

Ian and Matt are both convinced that they are well respected and loved in the local Keene community. The truth is, no one knows who they are, or cares, except for the isolated communities that root for either one.

They each get an incorrect vision of their own popularity through a false consensus. Based on projection and presumably pluralistic ignorance.

Because each uses a false impression of what the majority thinks, they then see the other as irrational or stupid. This is only magnified by their use of the availability heuristic. Within their isolated communities, they expose themselves only to information that confirms the other person is wrong.

Ian and Matt both focus on why the other is wrong, deepening their biases, and refusing to see their own faults. Even if they are in effect, the same person.

Solving the Issue

Ian Freeman and Matt Schmidt are both closed off to all criticism. Ian's canned defense is that because people criticize him, he must be right. For Matt, he tells himself that because he was in Keene first, it should be as he wants it.

But how can you and I avoid this problem?

The most obvious solution is to expose yourself to opinions other than your own on a regular basis. Make an attempt to understand. Make it your goal to walk away from the material more knowledgeable.

To help with this, try to go into a situation in which you might hear a disagreement, with a null hypothesis. Start with the premise that the person you're talking to is no different than you.

Do not assume out of the gate that they will disagree. Explain your beliefs and go from there. If you already think you're going to disagree, you will, and the conversation will go nowhere.

When it comes to listening, or reading, start with the assumption that you will agree. If you hear something you disagree with, test the hypothesis. Is it something you could agree with?

Find the agreements first, and use them as a way to discuss the disagreements.

When you do respond to disagreements, consider who the other person is. Their history, their education, their experiences. Don't use them as a way to say, "Oh, that's why they're an idiot." But rather, appreciate them for what they are and use them to understand.


When Billy Wayne Davis said in the movie "Freedom!" that Free Keene and Stop Free Keene cancel each other out, he hit on an important point.

Ian Freeman and Matt Schmidt are the perfect examples of how isolated and delusional each group is. Neither one is particularly popular or known to locals. Ian and Matt would say otherwise, but from any outsiders perspective, they're wrong.

Popularity isn't the point here. The point is how bad they are at understanding one another. How bad each group is at understanding one another.

The Stop Free Keene blog is often put down as a low-quality blog with no substance and full of stupidity. It is way too aggressive and angry. But the points made are often correct.

In the same light, it's said that the Free Keene blog has its head up  its own ass. That it's usually self-congratulatory on every minor and non-achievement of the Free State Project. Yet, it is often correct.

If there's any lesson to take away here, it's to be aware that neither you, I, or anyone else is 'objective.' Rather than we can learn from each other, even from those we passionately disagree with