78% of North Koreans Think I’m Right

Do you know anybody who’s a Rick Santorum supporter? Is he/she obnoxiously confident the polls will move in Santorum’s direction once his message spreads? That soon nothing will stop him from ensuring society once again has values? If you do, don’t look down on them because they have a comically unrealistic sense of the political landscape, simply look down on them because they’ve fallen victim to the psychological tendency to assume people you know nothing about agree with you.

In two field studies, we examined whether voters overestimate support for their political party among nonvoters. In Study 1, voters estimated the percentage of votes their party would receive in an upcoming election, and this percentage increased when voters estimated the percentage of votes their party would receive if nonvoters also were to vote. In Study 2, participants overestimated support for their party even when we made them explicitly aware of current levels of this support by presenting them with poll-based forecasts of election results.

If I could pick one thing on which to blame all the problems in the world, it would be our psychological need to buttress our own beliefs. The assumption that strangers agree with you is one way to do this, but there are many others (motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, etc.). Although the unconscious bolstering of your positions seems harmless and even smart — less doubt does lead to less unhappiness — constantly reinforcing your beliefs makes it very hard to change your mind when you’re wrong. The emergent outcome of a population slow to correct mistakes is a world where too many people are wrong about important things.

On a somewhat related note, an interesting little exercise is to respond “I think you’re wrong” anytime somebody shares an opinion. Most of the time the person presses for an explanation and then you can say you were just joking, but you’d be surprised how often people instantly qualify their position. They won’t actually change their opinion, but they’ll modify it so it’s more likely to be “right” (and probably without any internal acknowledgment that part of their previous position was wrong.) I also recommend responding to opinions by pointing to a stranger across the street and declaring that he disagrees. Whatever it is that makes you or others think more deeply about why you think what you think, it’s probably a good idea.
Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. (2011). If They Were to Vote, They Would Vote for Us Psychological Science, 22 (12), 1506-1510 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611420164

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