Psychology and Human Nature


Do you think a woman’s place is in the home? Do you think gay marriage is an offence against both nature and God? Do you think all immigrants should be deported pronto? Whatever it is we happen to believe – however silly – we are of course convinced we are right. Not only that however; it turns out we also think most other people share our views!

Professor Nicholas Epley carries out the same fascinating study every year with his MBA students. He gives them a list of ‘Ethically Questionable Practices’ (see table below) and asks them to say whether they think they are morally ok or not. Most people think they are not. But there is a twist in the study; students are also asked to estimate what percentage of people share their views. Most people who think these practices are unacceptable believe (correctly) that most others share their views. But here is where it gets interesting: the others, the students who are actually in the minority, also believe that most people agree with them! Look at the last column in the table; while only 6% of students think it is ok to pirate software from work and install it on your home PC, these people actually think that most others (56%) share their view! Epley concludes that our natural tendency is to assume others interpret the world as we do [Epley, N. “Mindwise” – Allen Lane 2014, p. 101].

Epley - False Consensus[You can see why this may be a problem here on FB for instance. Say you are the moderator of a particular FB page and you have come to the conclusion that a particular policy is the best for the group. Of course you could ask what other people think about it, but why go to all that trouble? Clearly most people can see that your decision is the best… 🙂  After all, if people object they are free to express their views later. But here is the thing: in most cases, they won’t. This is where another phenomenon (‘Pluralistic Ignorance’) kicks in. Most people may actually disagree with your decision, but they think along the lines of ‘Well, perhaps most others agree with the moderators… After all, nobody has said anything…’  And so it goes… The combination of these two factors can help explain an awful lot about how minorities often come to dominate the public debate – and why, very often, there simply isn’t any public debate at all…]

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