I frequently hear people trying to support their opinions by claiming that “everybody” thinks the same thing they do about some issue. It doesn’t matter much what the issue is, because most people seem to believe that how they see the world is typical of how other normal, mainstream people see the same world.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the psychology behind this — and I’m trying to track down research that might address it — but right now, I’m thinking about the implications of it. If most people honestly believe that others share their general views, could this help explain why people are so supportive of majoritarian systems? Could it be that they have an unconscious belief that an honest vote will produce a result they’re going to like?
In 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon was faced with very vocal and growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. He gave a famous speech in which he asked for support from the “great silent majority” who he thought agreed with him. Nixon’s approval rating had been hovering around 50 percent (and was 56 percent at the time of the speech) but after invoking the notion that most people agreed with him, his support immediately jumped to 68 percent. Since nothing else happened to explain the change, it seems reasonable to believe that people have a need to identify with the majority if a politician claiming something to be the majority position increases his approval rating by 12 points almost overnight.
More recently, during the debate last year in the U.S. Congress over changes to the health care system, supporters of each side of the debate were honestly convinced that their view was the mainstream view. Each side had polls that showed support for what they believed in — and everybody believed the polls that showed opinion as agreeing with them. They unconsciously cherry-picked which polls to believe.
I’ve seen the same thing in political campaigns. Candidates and their supporters frequently believe they’re going to win even if polls show they’re doing poorly. I worked closely with a U.S. Senate campaign years ago in which the “inner circle” was convinced that the candidate would make a runoff for his party’s nomination, even though polls showed him with about 4 percent of the support. They honestly believed the polls were wrong, because everybody they knew supported this candidate. I couldn’t convince them otherwise. (They said I was being “negative.”) On election night, the candidate drew about the same percentage of the vote that the polls showed, so people inside the campaign started inventing other excuses for why the results didn’t reflect their reality. They were experiencing strong cognitive dissonance.
If people realized that what they believe isn’t necessarily what others believe, would they be more willing to consider a world in which different groups are allowed to go their own way? If more people understood that they weren’t going to get what they want through the electoral process, would it lay the groundwork for more people to consider alternatives to a majoritarian power structure?
There’s no question that what people are taught in government schools (and in far too many non-government schools) predisposes them to love the current majoritarian state system. But does this unconscious belief that most others generally agree with them really cement the deal? Should those of us who want a freer world and more choices in competitive governance be doing more to show people just how fragmented they really are in what they want?
I’m not sure yet, but this is something I’m going to be thinking about a lot. Does anyone know of research that touches on the issue?