Over the objections of her staff, the manager insisted that the higher price be chosen for the new product that was going to be launched. She insisted that she found the higher price reasonable and was sure that most consumers would feel the same way. Many corporate employees have encountered a manager who insisted a certain decision was correct because she was sure it was the choice most people would prefer. Research has shown that people tend to believe that most others are similar to them in their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour. This expectation is commonly referred to as the false consensus effect. We tend to overestimate the degree to which our thinking is shared by others, while in reality, others may think and act in a manner quite different from ours.
In one classic study, researchers asked college students if they would be willing to display a personal billboard (a two-panel board that sandwiches the carrier) on campus. Those who agreed to carry the billboard guessed that most students on campus would agree to do so, while those who refused guessed that most people would also decline the request. Not only this, they also felt that those who chose the option opposite to their own were somehow weird or strange. So, they expect others to be like them and find it odd when they are not.
The consequences of the false consensus effect can be quite significant in business situations. Managers often have to know how consumers will respond to a corporate action (changing a product’s features, altering the price, launching an ad campaign). As is often the case, if managers don’t have reliable field data and are going by experience, it is likely they will fall victim to this trap. They will assume that others think like them and will make a decision that suits their preferences even when such preferences are relatively uncommon.
We are reminded of a close friend who sells flooring tiles for a living. When he started out, he bought inventory of tile designs that he thought were elegant and tasteful. To his surprise, he discovered that some of the best-selling designs were the ones that he liked the least while the designs that he thought were “classy” collected dust. He soon learnt not to project his likes on his customers and instead listen to them to identify their tastes and preferences.
Have you ever bought a technologically advanced product that is difficult to use? Or encountered software that is not intuitive but rather hard and confusing to use? Why did the makers of the product not make a simpler, easier-to-use product? One possible reason could be the false consensus effect. The makers have worked on the product’s concept for such a long time that its features were quite obvious and easy to use for them. They then assumed that others would find it just as easy to use. But what is common and intuitive to the maker of the product may be totally mystifying to end-users who are new to the product.
Similarly, in the field of advertising, one often comes across ads that are difficult to understand. This happens because the creators of the advertisement assume that the target audience is like them and will process the presented information in the same way they do. This assumption frequently leads to communication failures.
So, how does one correct for this bias? As is true for most psychological biases, awareness is key. The false consensus effect is especially strong where an opinion we hold is particularly important to us. We just assume that every “normal” person has to have the same opinion (or else, something is wrong with them). In such situations, it helps to check with others if our assumption is accurate. We must ensure that we update our view of the “norm” independently of our own view of the norm. Whenever you start getting viewpoints opposed to your own, it may indicate that more data is needed for a decision. This may take a conscious effort. Some research has shown that people maintain their beliefs of what the norm is even when they are shown data that suggests their view is incorrect. Managers with a lot of experience also tend to find it easier to dismiss viewpoints counter to their own and feel that their experience gives them a better understanding of the norm. While this may sometimes be true, it could also be a false sense that everyone is like them.
And because we feel that this problem is widespread, we’re certain you all agree with us.
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Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.