What causes false consensus?

Photo: What causes false consensus?

Human beings are complex creatures. While trying to communicate, we go through a variety of behavioural dances. One, in particular, is as common in elementary school classrooms as in war zones.

It may have happened to you in a lecture hall; you could not understand the material, yet instead of asking a “stupid question,” you falsely nodded along in agreement.

Maybe you pushed forward an initiative at work while silently questioning the ethics of your supervisor.

Maybe you watched a peer become the target of slander, yet defending them would put the target on you, so you kept your distance and played it safe.

Maybe, unbeknownst to you, in each of these situations, your peers felt the same way you did, but everyone thought they were the only ones. And as a result, no one spoke up.

This dance is called pluralistic ignorance.

Pluralistic ignorance occurs when virtually every member of a group privately disagrees with what is considered to be the prevailing attitudes of the group as a whole, creating a false consensus.

This is a big topic, and I will discuss it more over the next few weeks. However, in today’s letter, I want to start with the question: What causes consensus?

Solomon Asch was a legendary social psychologist who pioneered abundant research on the causes of social influence.

In the 1950s, Asch ran a series of experiments to test the vulnerability of people's convictions. He wanted to determine how much social influence would be required to change someone's mind about something they believed to be true.

It turns out it doesn’t take much.

In Asch’s experiments, he started with a very basic question. He gathered a study group and positioned them in a classroom. On each of their desks was a piece of paper with a large line. At the front of the classroom was a slide projector. Asch showed his subjects three lines, each of a different length. One line was very long, one line was very short, and one line was the same length as the one on the participants’ desks.

The participants were asked to call out which line on the slide was the same length as the one on their desk. The question was built simply enough that 100% of the subjects got the answer right.

In the second stage of this exam, Asch had the majority of the room filled with actors - individuals who were briefed to play a coordinated role in the experiment. The subjects were given the same question, but this time his actors would call out their answers early, and all would give the same incorrect answer.

Over several rounds of this exercise, 30-75% of the subjects would follow the queue of the loud majority and submit the obvious, wrong answer.

If 75% of a population can be swayed with such a simple question, imagine what occurs with complex issues like assessing public policy or social dilemmas.

As Asch’s experiment went forward, he increased the complexity of his questions, and as expected, the influence of the majority became stronger.

Why do we follow social influence, and why is it so effective at creating conformity?

The simple answer is peer pressure - we want to avoid facing the disapproval of our peers. This is a primal instinct - whether out in the Savanah or walking down a dark alley, we feel safer within a group.

The second answer is that we doubt our competency - after Asch’s experiment, he interviewed the participants to learn why they readily selected the wrong answers. Most stated that they believed their initial perceptions must have been wrong. This is logical. The belief that “I am right, and everyone else is wrong” is a challenging conviction to hold.

Asch conducted 130 of these experiments in seventeen countries; what did he prove?

Asch proved that if I put you in a room with 50 other people and put a table at the front of the room, then asked everyone, “Is this a table or a chair?” and before you had a chance to answer, the other 50 people immediately called out “Chair!”, you would likely wonder for a moment if you were having a mental lapse and had momentarily confused the two words. Your second thought would probably be that you misunderstood the question and that “Chair” was the correct answer.

That is to say, if you are a human, you will default to the group consensus.

But this is where it gets really interesting.

In 2005, PubMed published an article titled “Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation.”

Despite the lovely title, the article is fascinating and presents a series of similar experiments, this time paired with brain scans. It showed that when people conform in Asch-like settings, they actually begin to see the situation as everyone else does. (This part bent my mind)

Their perception of reality and truth changes.

Under the right settings, we can actually convince people that chairs are tables.

Over the last three years, we have had no shortage of deep social divisions around highly complex issues - health mandates, civil rights, geopolitical tensions and gender norms - much more complicated than measuring a line on a chalkboard.

So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “What is wrong with them?!”, now we know. You see a table, and they see a chair. It should be no surprise that we can’t communicate.

Nobody Likes Hearing This

I am a strong-willed, independent-minded, sovereign being who will make his own choices. I feel called to dispute the conformity default.

Yet, an abundance of research on the topic states otherwise.

You cannot defend against the enemy you don’t see - recognizing the impact of social influence is the first step towards immunizing yourself from it - believing the research has value.

Solomon Asch proved there is a lot we can’t control - many social influences fly under our radar and infect us like a virus. But there are many that we can control, and by getting clear on our desired outcome, we can focus on the required inputs.

If we want to feel inspired, driven, creative and present, we can seek out people and things that evoke these feelings in us.

If we want better deal flow, a higher income, or a fitter body, we can seek out people and things that inspire our actions.

Asch also proved that the “truths” of society are arbitrary. We are often governed by a loud majority, many of whom are blindly aligning with other confident voices.

He proved that in confusing situations, everyone is usually just as confused as you are. Therefore, you can choose to speak first. People will respect you for it.

He proved that one confident voice, who speaks first, can turn the tide of the crowd. You can choose to be that confident voice.

Thank you for reading today; I appreciate each and every one of you.

Now, let’s jump into the Portfolio Review...

Keep reading with a 7-day free trial

Subscribe to Jay’s Letter to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.

Start trial

A subscription gets you:

Key Lessons and Takeaways from the Weekly Essay
Investment Portfolio Allocations
Personal Goal Setting with The Sovereign Life Blue Print