The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Everyone thinks like I do

The dangerous pitfalls of the false consensus effect

Last Friday, I wrote a critique about gay pride events. In short, I observed that pride events have degenerated from valuable political movements into massive parties in which nearly naked, drunken gay men act hyper-sexually in public. I postulated that when a minority group seeks social acceptance, it should not drift further from the norm as the majority begins to accept it.

My opinion solicited vehement responses from some of my gay and straight allied friends. Specifically, they thought that SMU was too socially conservative a forum in which to discuss the flaws in the search for gay equality, that I misused an opportunity to support a minority group, and that my assertion that minorities should conform somewhat to the majority was “dangerous.” I noticed that some readers took my writing as a direct threat to their deeply held beliefs that gays should be immediately socially and politically accepted exactly as they are.

What was particularly interesting to me is that I received completely opposite responses from some other readers, most of whom were straight. One reader confided that he grew up in a somewhat homophobic household and held very socially conservative beliefs. It took meeting levelheaded, “normal” LGBT people and supporters to rethink his views and perception of LGBT culture. Now, he considers himself an ally, but he feels that the behavior I described at pride events only perpetuates the negative stereotypes that some have about gay people.

In fact, the majority of the responses I received were positive, and (of the readers that I know) mostly from straight people. So how is it that my opinion was taken in such radically different ways?

It occurred to me that this scenario might be a perfect example of the false consensus effect, a psychological phenomenon in which a person overestimates the extent to which others agree with him or her. The idea behind the false consensus effect is that a person, influenced by the ideas of others around him in daily life, will believe that other people outside of the group think the same way.

This concept jarred my worldview when I first learned about it, and I would not be surprised if I experienced the effect in my own life. For example, the vast majority of my friends, coworkers, teachers, and family support gay rights. Consequently, I really cannot fathom why anyone would care if Mike and Joe down the street get married or not. It just does not make sense to me.

But polls show that I am wrong. Last month, a Washington Post/NBC News poll found that 52 percent of voters thought that gay marriage should be legalized and 43 percent felt that gay marriage should be illegal. Although technically the majority does agree with me, a very large number of people in America do not.

Occasionally, I am appalled and shocked by something that conservative radio host and commentator Rush Limbaugh says because it is so opposed to what I think, but the fact that Limbaugh still has a lucrative listener base reveals that many people in America agree with him.

Ironically, it seems to me that in the case of special interest groups, the false consensus effect can be highly detrimental. Particularly in this case, the members of the straight, but tolerant community felt that pride can increase negative stereotypes, while the most ardent supporters of gay rights thought that gays should be accepted anyway. At the very least, it seems to me that the responses critical of my position were less practical for attaining social equality than the responses in agreement.

Given how much our immediate circle of friends and coworkers seems to affect our thinking, I would guess that a socially conservative person would only encounter the LGBT community when events like pride happen. Would he be more likely to accept “regular” people marching in a parade as activists or drunken, sexualized, nearly nude gay men?

The African American Civil Rights Movement has some parallels to the gay rights movement. Both movements involve a struggle for legal and social recognition in America. I would definitely concede that the African American Civil Rights Movement was more drastic, dangerous and protracted than the gay rights movement has been so far.

But the parallels are close enough between the two movements that I think we can learn from them. The Black Power movement was a splinter group during the Civil Rights Movement that radically demanded immediate change. Its members embraced symbols of unique African American identity and isolated themselves from the majority white culture. In the end, the Black Power movement may have helped instigate legal reform and some change, but in the long term social acceptance was achieved by more moderate African Americans who worked with the majority culture to reach common ground.

The people in the middle ground were able to implement the most effective social change, and they were probably not as influenced by the false consensus effect because they were surrounded by different opinions. Perhaps the most effective way to break this effect is to diversify your friends, question your own position, and rethink how you come across to others. After all, it seems that the best way to be socially accepted is to remove adjectives. Show society that you are not just a black person or a gay person, you are a person.

Paul is the Opinion Editor. He is a junior majoring in voice performance. 

More to Discover