It’s right up there with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and true love–the Myth of Everyone.
The Myth of Everyone is invoked whenever someone attempts to justify their own or someone else’s shitty actions by saying, “Oh, come on, everyone does that.” For instance, my recent article against the Greek system generated arguments that all people and all groups of people do the sort of stuff I accused the Greek system of perpetuating, so it’s unfair to criticize the Greek system on those grounds. (I should’ve asked these people to find me examples of photography clubs paddling new members, or of a knitting circle forcing people to do keg stands, but I suppose that’s besides the point.)
At other times, the Myth of Everyone is invoked to explain even nastier, more specific examples of human behavior. For instance, a few months ago, a 17-year-old was gang-raped by a group of college men at a party. One of the lawyers representing the group of men stated, “This wasn’t anyone’s finest moment. It was 20-year-olds at a party behaving like 20-year-olds at a party.” Clearly, the lawyer wanted us to believe that gang-raping a teenage girl is what “everyone” would do in this situation.
Who is this mysterious Everyone? Why do they have such a hold over our collective imagination? Luckily, the field of psychology has an answer for that. It’s called the False Consensus Effect.
The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that most people have that causes them to overestimate the degree to which their particular beliefs, values, goals, and opinions are shared by the majority of people–hence, a false consensus.
Psychologists believe that this effect occurs because people have a need to fit in and to believe that others share their mindsets. Feeling “normal” increases one’s self-esteem.
The effect is particularly prominent among members of a tight-knit group that rarely interacts with non-group members, and therefore is rarely forced to encounter divergent viewpoints. It becomes really easy for members of such a group to assume that their beliefs are shared by the larger population, even when they actually aren’t. An example of this would be, say, members of a sorority or fraternity.
This aspect of human psychology probably evolved to keep people happy and feeling accepted by society. In prehistoric times, it would’ve been adaptive to keep believing you’re pretty normal up until people convinced you otherwise–for instance, by excluding you from the tribe. But today, it’s become all too easy to convince yourself that “Everyone” shares your viewpoints, since our society is fragmented and we can choose people just like us to interact with.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how things like sexual assault, binge drinking, and all sorts of other problems get delegitimized and ignored. I’ve heard my fellow students making ridiculously overgeneralized statements like “Everyone hooks up” and “Everyone goes out and gets drunk” and even “All guys try to pressure girls into having sex with them.”
It would shock many of these students to know some statistics on these things. Namely, at least at my school, nearly 50% of the student body has not had sex in the past year. 23% percent of Northwestern students do not drink alcohol–AT ALL!–and 60% do not binge drink, meaning that they have four or less drinks each time they go out. (This includes the students who don’t drink at all, too.) This puts the percentage of students who do go crazy and get drunk at a little over one-third of the student body–a sizable minority, to be sure, but hardly the overwhelmingly dominant lifestyle people seem to think it is.
I can’t cite these statistics because I received them directly from Northwestern’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness, which does official surveys on this sort of stuff. (The surveys are distributed to a representative random sample of the undergraduate student body.) If you’re curious, though, I have contacts in that department and I could probably obtain a report for you.
So, who is this mysterious “Everyone” who has tons of sex, drinks tons of alcohol, and pressures everyone into doing the same? It’s not the average Northwestern student, that’s for sure.
The problem of false consensus goes way beyond the college campus. It helps explain why some people think that cheating, shoplifting, accepting bribes, or using drugs isn’t a big deal (“Oh, come on, everyone does that!”), why right-wing politicians think Americans want to stop gay marriage (when, in fact, 53% of Americans believe in full marriage rights for the LGBT community), and why some people persist in telling racist/sexist jokes, believing that everyone’s still living in the 1950s.
Nowadays, when someone tries to tell me that “Everyone” is doing something, I take that with a grain of salt. Such statements probably tell you more about the person making them than about the majority of people, since most people don’t bother to actually go out and find statistics about things like I’ve just done.
Reason: it’s so inconvenient, isn’t it?