MUGWE: The false consensus effect on the Israel-Palestine war

Why everybody thinks they’re right and all dissenters are wrong.

In Summary
  • The opinions we hold are developed over time through a process called socialisation.
  • Through this, we crystallise values, behaviour, beliefs and political preferences that persist throughout our later life.
Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel.
ISRAEL-PALESTINE WAR: Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel.
Image: BBC

Eat at Joe’s.

In 1977, students at Stanford University were asked to walk around the campus, wearing a sign that read ‘Eat at Joe’s.

Sixty-two per cent of those who agreed believed others would also agree to walk around the campus with the sign. Another 67 per cent of those who refused also believed other students would baulk at doing so.

This showed that those who agreed to wear the sign and those who refused tended to overestimate the likelihood that others would choose to act the same way as they did.

This experiment was conducted by Professor Lee Ross. His focus was on biases in human inference, judgment and decision-making, especially on the cognitive, perceptual and motivational biases. These, he said, lead people to misinterpret other people’s behaviour and create particular barriers to dispute resolution and the implementation of peace agreements.

He called this bias the false consensus effect.

FCE is a tendency to overestimate how much people agree with us. It is the proclivity to see one’s own choices and judgments as common sense and appropriate to existing circumstances. One rejects differing opinions as abnormal, deviant, inappropriate, ill-informed, grossly wrong and even foolish.

FCE skews the way we predict how people make decisions or judge a certain situation. It lures us into thinking we know what is going on in the minds of others and the world at large.

At no other time than the present has the FCE consensus effect been so vividly alive. A week ago a war broke out between Israel and Palestine.

This breaking news was closely followed by bountiful opinions on who is the aggressor and the aggressed, expressed in print, electronic, social and legacy media.

To justify those opinions, renditions of the genesis, history, and chronology of this protracted conflict have been exhibited in all manner of shapes and forms. These include historical archives of cartography, expert interviews, religious anthropology and even memes.

Sadly, these have not been enough to move the needle on the opinion scale.

To illustrate this, there is a meme showing a guy with a stick and what appears to be a hornet’s nest. In the first frame, the guy is shown poking at the hornet’s nest with the stick. In the second frame, he is shown running away in terror with a swarm of hornets in pursuit.

In the third frame, he is shown with one hand pointing back at the hornet’s nest, and the other hand pointing at his swollen face.

Also in the third frame, are some of the major international news media houses with their cameras trained on this guy. In all the frames, the guy is wearing a shirt bearing the emblem of the flag of Israel, while the hornet’s nest is wrapped in the Palestinian with the with the of the Palestinian flag

Interestingly enough, there is a similar meme also doing the rounds on social media. Only this time, the emblem on the shirt of the guy with the stick is that of the Palestinian flag, and the hornet’s nest is draped with the flag of Israel.

Depending on which side of the opinion coin one is, this meme communicates and buttresses their opinions louder than a thousand words.

This begs the question, which meme depicts the true position of this conflict? Which expert interview, religious anthropological story or cartography tells us the indisputable truth? Whose opinion is right or wrong?

The opinions we hold are developed over time through a process called socialisation. Through this, we crystallise values, behaviour, beliefs and political preferences that persist throughout our later life.

One of the influences of socialisation is the media. In today’s world, where the news is a click away, media has become how we acquire information on issues outside of our immediate life space, particularly in areas where we do not possess direct knowledge or experience. Therefore, depending on which opinion you subscribe to, the tendency will be to follow and believe the news channel, social media handles and conversations that align with your opinion.

There are three ways in which the legacy of social media shapes our opinions. The first is agenda-setting. As readers or viewers, we perceive how much importance to attach to an issue based on the emphasis the media gives it. The media does this by providing differential levels of coverage on the issue or through cues such as large bold headlines, making the issue the opening story, or the length devoted to it.

The second is priming where media depictions stimulate related thoughts in the minds of the audience. This makes judgement easier and quicker. The illustration of the hornet’s nest meme is a good example of priming.

The third is framing. Stories don’t write themselves. They are written by people who also partake in the socialisation process. They decide how to present and convey the information.

They influence how and why to think about an issue so that we see it from a certain perspective. This reinforces our pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.

I submit that staying aware of the false consensus effect is particularly important on emotive issues.

The algorithms on social media put agreeable content and points of view on your newsfeed. This fuels FCE and makes you think the world agrees with you.

So when you encounter a person with a divergent view, conversations lead to arguments, which degenerate into insults and in extreme cases fist fights.

Friendships are lost, relationships irreparably broken and fraternities utterly divided.

Why do differing opinions generate this level of emotion in people you hardly know, experiences you barely have and interests you don’t even share?

A study conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Southern California found that when our political and religious beliefs and opinions are challenged, our brains become active in areas that govern our personal identity and emotional responses to threats.

Therefore, to consider an alternative view, we would have to consider an alternative version of ourselves.

The latter exposes our vulnerability, and hence, the natural tendency is to ardently defend our opinions to counter the perceived threat.

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to the opinionated militants; curiosity might have killed cats, but it has never killed people. Never stop questioning. Curiosity has its reason for existing.

Opinions are like onions. They spell similarly, usually have many layers and tend to make people cry - Caitlyn Paige.

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