Sunday, June 16, 2013

The False Consensus Effect and Some Consequences

My opinion, my conviction, gains infinitely in strength and success, the moment a second mind has adopted it.

In the aftermath of the shocking revelations of scandal such as we’ve seen all too much in the buddhist and yoga communities lately, one salient point is often ruminated upon and just as often with great anger: why do so many practitioners “enable” the abusive behavior? How is it that people can know a guru/teacher is engaging in inappropriate and damaging behavior and not speak up? And most hypotheses revolve around psychological causes and conditions. Here I’d like to look into another potential cause that metacognition studies (involving thinking about how we think and perceive) offer: the imagined agreement of others and the exaggerated impressions of social support.

It should be obvious that what we believe is heavily influenced by what we think others believe. One typical example I’ve often found humorous is the office collection for a co-worker’s gift to celebrate the birth of her new baby. When asked for a donation towards the gift, most of us try to find out how much others have given and then decide our own contribution accordingly. I’ve often wondered what operations lie behind the first person’s calculations!

Within limits, the tendency to be influenced by the beliefs of others is valid and justified. What others think and how they behave provide us with important sources of information about what is correct, valid or appropriate. However, our ability to effectively utilize this information is compromised by a systematic defect in our ability to accurately estimate the beliefs and attitudes of others. We tend to exaggerate the extent to which others hold the same beliefs we hold, and because of this tendency to think our beliefs are shared by others these beliefs are more resistant to change than they would be otherwise.

In a form of projection (which we usually think of in Freudian terms as the projecting of unwanted or distasteful characteristics onto others that one is unaware of possessing themselves) we tend to also attribute to others characteristics that we do know we possess onto others. Thus, we tend to over-estimate how many people like what we like. This tendency has come to be called the “false consensus effect.” 

The false consensus effect refers to the tendency for people’s own beliefs, values and behavior to bias their estimates of how widely such views and behaviors are shared by others. For example, fans of country music think that more people like country music than those who dislike country music; yoga practitioners tend to think more people practice yoga than those who do not practice. Perhaps relevant to the “guru scandals” that have come to our attention, one university experiment involved asking students if they would be willing to walk around campus wearing a sandwich-board sign with the message “REPENT.” There were fairly substantial percentages of those who would be willing and of those who would not. After agreeing or declining to wear the sign, the students were than asked to estimate the percentage of their peers who would agree or decline. As the false consensus effect would predict, the student’s estimates reflected their own choices: those who had agreed to wear the sign estimated that 60% would do so while those who refused thought only 27% would agree to wear it!

Note, the false consensus effect is of a relative nature; it is not that people think their beliefs are shared by a majority of other people, but simply that people’s estimates of the commonness of a given belief is positively correlated with their own beliefs. It is not that religious fundamentalists believe most people share their beliefs, but rather their estimates of the percentage of religious fundamentalists in the general population can be counted on to exceed similar estimates of their more secular peers.

Why should this be so? Research seems to point to the mediating role of a host of cognitive and motivational variables. For example, one motivational factor stems from our desire to maintain a positive valuation of our own belief or judgment. If we have a strong emotional investment in a belief we tend to exaggerate the extent of perceived social support for the belief. Interestingly, research shows that people are particularly likely to exaggerate the extent to which attractive, respected and well-liked people share their beliefs.

A major factor behind the false consensus effect that we can definitely see in cults and cult-like communities (such as we’ve seen in the AnusaraDiamond Mountainand Mt. Baldy communities to name three of the more recent and infamous scandals) is the more generalized tendency to selectively expose ourselves to information that supports our beliefs. Conservatives read conservative periodicals and watch Fox News and thus receive support for their conservative political ideology; religious creationists read creationist literature rather than contemporary evolutionary biology and thus bolster their creationist beliefs. With the fracturing of discourse found on the internet, where we can choose to follow blogs and websites that support our views, it takes a concerted effort and willingness to seek out opposing viewpoints. 

Besides selectively exposing ourselves to a biased set of information relevant to a particular belief, we are also exposed to a biased sample of people and their views and beliefs. Liberals associate with other liberals; yoga practitioners associate with other yoga practitioners. It is a fact that similarity of beliefs, values and habits is one of the primary determinants of those with whom we associate. In fact, this is consciously valued, celebrated and suggested in the buddhist and yoga community as “the company of like-minded people” or sangha. And while such association does indeed have great benefit, if such a sangha grows insular and isolated, it can lead to the cultishnness we also often see. The importance of “transparency” for the health of a community becomes quite clear and pronounced when we come to understand that if we become insular in our association with others, the false consensus effect will lead us to see our beliefs as “common” because they are shared by “everyone we know.”

There are other factors that contribute to the false consensus effect.  One more I would like to touch upon here is the mechanism that involves the resolution of the ambiguities inherent in most issues, choices, or situations. Before we decide what we think about some issue, we have to be clear about the terms. For instance, if I’m asked for my opinion about Christianity, it would be helpful to know what the term  “Christianity” refers to: the Pope and CatholicismBilly Graham’s Evangelicalism or  Radical ChristianityKnowing what is meant will not only help determine my own opinion, but will also influence my estimates of the preference of others.

With the false consensus effect seen to be as prevalent as it is, the question becomes why aren’t our misconceptions about what other people think corrected by the feedback we receive from others? Shouldn’t we expect others to let us know if our beliefs or assumptions about them are wrong? While in the most bizarre and erroneous cases we can count on being called out, the fact is that generally such corrective feedback is not as common as we might think. And this is yet another factor that leads to the cult-like, group-think behind the silence that allows dysfunction to breed and persist in closed communities. To some extent, cult members don’t get the corrective feedback from others that their beliefs may be wrong, irrational and harmful or that certain behaviors may be dysfunctional, because they are associating with those who share their beliefs, values and behavior. However, even more telling, it has been shown that even when we do cross paths with those whose beliefs and attitudes conflict with our own, we are rarely challenged. People are generally reluctant to openly question other people’s beliefs.

I should clarify that it’s adults who are generally reluctant to do so; children tend to be brutally open and honestly revealing. Just think: as an adult have you ever gone to the restroom while out at a social gathering to find your zipper undone or some green salad remnant  obviously caught in your teeth? Yet I’m sure we can all remember how gleefully our grammar-school friends would chant and point out our open fly or the bit of food caught in our teeth!

I can speak from my experience as a naturalist that when I lecture at yoga centers and hear some bit of new age, magical thinking, it’s taken me years to get over my reluctance and discomfort in offering contradictory information and evidence. Our reluctance to voice our disagreements has been repeatedly demonstrated in psychological research: people generally try to avoid potential conflict with others. Such reticence is exacerbated in yoga and buddhist communities where any hint of dissent or critical thinking is often met with silence or charges of “wrongful speech.” In fact, in many contemporary communities, “right speech” has become a kind of yoga/buddhist political correctness, marginalizing and devaluing any real difference of opinion.

The emphasis on “right speech” amplifies the cognitive tendency we already possess to avoid the unpleasant emotions produced by disagreement and criticism. In social situations, people feign agreement to head off conflict and disharmony. Social psychology tells us that we tend to like people who are like ourselves and so the flip side of this, that if we express disagreement we risk being disliked and ostracized, keeps us from speaking up.

The buddhist and yoga communities tend to be extremely uncomfortable with disagreement, conflict and criticism. And again, such discomfort is a more particularized example of a general tendency shared by us all. In everyday life, the hesitancy to speak up often has only minor consequences. However, there are situations where this tendency can contribute to great harm for individuals and for the community.

Psychologist Irving Janis’ work on “Groupthink” shows that even members of highly cohesive advisory groups whose task is to suggest effective courses of action can become paralyzed by the concern with maintaining apparent consensus within the group and will sometimes censor their personal reservations to accomplish it. Janis quotes Arthur Schlesinger’s account of the Bay of Pigs debacle where Schlesinger confesses to “having kept so silent during those crucial discussions in the Cabinet Room…. I can only explain my failure to do more than raise a few timid questions by reporting that one’s impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion.”

Over and over again, whenever a scandal is finally revealed, the questions immediately arise as to how such behavior had been allowed to continue. When the John Friend scandal broke, it became clear that many senior teachers had known of his breech of ethics; when the tragedy at Diamond Mountain was made known, it became clear that many had known of Lama Christie’s apparent magical thinking, irrationality and narcissistic disconnect from reality and her husband Ian’s instability and aggressive tendencies; and when it was finally revealed that Sasaki Roshi was a sexual predator over the course of 50 years or more it was also revealed that many knew about his despicable behavior all along!

Because of the cognitive tendencies that are than exacerbated by yogic and buddhist teachings that can be twisted to inculate a culture of repression of expression and diversity of opinion, the failure to express dissent is all too prevalent and has led to severe and painful consequences. Because of the culture of silence and the false consensus effect, our beliefs and behavior all too often lack healthy scrutiny and debate. This lack of critical discussion leads us to exaggerate the consensus for our beliefs and behavior. Bolstered by such a false sense of acceptance and social support, our beliefs may strike us as more valid than is actually the case, and they become ever more resistant to logical and empirical challenge.

I wish to end by expressing my gratitude and appreciation to those, like Matthew Remski, who have taken on the generally thankless task of speaking up and speaking out. May such critical thinking and compassionate inquiry continue to grow within the contemporary buddhist and yoga communities so that perhaps we can finally correct (and compensate for) some of our cognitive errors.