Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The False Consensus Effect, Geography, and Going to University

Apologies for the lack of updates - I've been hanging in Miami for a few days.

And this got me thinking about the false consensus effect. After the sunk cost fallacy, the false consensus effect is probably one of the biases that tends to lead you astray the most. As wikipedia describes it:
[T]he false consensus effect is a cognitive bias whereby a person tends to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her. There is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are 'normal' and that others also think the same way that they do. This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a 'false consensus'.
The false consensus effect seems to show up the most when you're not explicitly thinking about 'what do other people want, as evidenced by the things they do and say?', and instead just think 'what is desirable?'. Because implicitly the second question is really asking 'what do I think is desirable', and then extrapolating this to everybody.

People seem to do this a lot with preference for places to live. I tend to be in the category of people who prefer large coastal cities, ideally with warm weather. And it's easy to think that everyone wants these things. But at least according to revealed preference, they don't. Lots of people want to live in Toronto and Chicago and other cold weather cities. Lots of people really dislike temperatures above 80F (~27C). Lots of people want to live in middle-of-nowhere small towns, and can't stand the thought of having to drive half an hour to get to work.

Now, none of these are strong preferences for me. But the mistake is thinking that people who live elsewhere have the same preferences as you, but just have different constraints. He lives in that tiny town because his family is there. She lives in Chicago because it's the only place she can get a job. But if you took those things away, then surely everyone wants to live in Miami.

No, no they don't. You want to live in Miami, but maybe they just want different things than you do.

Now, if people are pressed, they can imagine that such alternative preferences might conceivably exist. But the perniciousness of the fallacy is that it's easy to get slack and just extrapolate your own preferences without thinking explicitly about whether they are going to be shared in this particular case. It's easy to overestimate how much your preferences are common to everyone.

Preference for geography is a very mild example of this bias. But it's a bias that's easy to slip into on all matters. And it gets even worse when the preferences are crazily different from your own.

I remember Mark Steyn had a very sharp observation about this a few years ago, when discussing Condoleezza Rice's views on the preferences of the Palestinian people:
"The great majority of Palestinian people," Condi Rice, the secretary of state, said to commentator Cal Thomas a couple of years back in a report that first appeared on JWR, "they just want a better life. This is an educated population. I mean, they have a kind of culture of education and a culture of civil society. I just don't believe mothers want their children to grow up to be suicide bombers. I think the mothers want their children to grow up to go to university. And if you can create the right conditions, that's what people are going to do."
Thomas asked a sharp follow-up: "Do you think this or do you know this?"
"Well, I think I know it," said Secretary Rice.
"You think you know it?"
"I think I know it."
I think she knows she doesn't know it. But in the modern world there is no diplomatic vocabulary for the kind of cultural fault line represented by the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, so even a smart thinker like Dr. Rice can only frame it as an issue of economic and educational opportunity. Of course, there are plenty of Palestinians like the ones the secretary of state described: You meet them living as doctors and lawyers in Los Angeles and Montreal and Geneva but not, on the whole, in Gaza.

Let us put aside for the moment the contentious questions of Palestine and Islam specifically, and consider purely as a matter of demographic estimation exactly how many mothers in the world would prefer their children to die in some military action than to go to university. Assuredly such people exist. Their preferences may seem bizarre to you and me. But the point is that it will always be tempting to assume that people with preferences so different from your own must necessarily be in the tiny minority. In fact, these are the types of issues that the false consensus effect is likely to impact the most.

In other words, when you are forced to estimate the prevalence of opinions widely different from your own, you would do far better to begin by examining specific data that bear on the question - survey responses, election outcomes, whatever, - rather than just assume that deep down, everyone must want the same thing as you.

Forget the Palestinians, and consider this instead. Back in 1994, thousands of Rwandan Hutus woke up each morning, and rather than 'just wanting a better life' as Condi Rice understands the term, what they actually wanted was to hack lots of Tutsi civilians to death with machetes. And they did so. For 100 days in a row.

Sometimes a group of people can have entirely consistent, widely shared preferences that are radically different from your own. What you do with that knowledge is up to you, but you do yourself no favours by pretending to the contrary.

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