Liberals, conservatives differ in estimating consensus within their group

By Susan Perry,, 11/26/13

A key difference on thinking about consensus may help explain why the conservative Tea Party movement was able to gain political traction while the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement did not.

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, recent years have seen an explosion of research into the psychological underpinnings of the ideological differences between liberals and conservatives.

These studies have found in general that conservatives tend to be more fearful of threats and losses, less tolerant of ambiguity, and more likely to value order, structure and stability. They are also more likely to develop punitive judgments about people who violate social norms.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more open to new experiences, more accepting of ambiguity and change, and more egalitarian in their attitudes toward others.

Well, you can add another differing psychological characteristic to that list. For a new study has found that conservatives and liberals also vary significantly from each other in how they estimate the percentage of people who share their opinions on politics and other topics.

Conservatives tend to overestimate the similarity of their views to other conservatives, while liberals tend to underestimate the similarity of their views to other liberals.

According to the team of New York University researchers who conducted the study, this difference may help explain why the conservative Tea Party movement was able to gain political traction while the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement did not:

At the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, the liberal movement had garnered mass support and possessed potential for enacting meaningful change. However, supporters of the movement struggled to develop consensus on both large-scale (e.g., creating a shared agenda) and small-scale (e.g., determining how to respond to the New York City Police Department’s request to take down signs) issues, which hindered the movement’s ability to progress toward social change. … In contrast, supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement reached consensus on important goals and successfully founded a congressional caucus.

The inability of liberal Occupy Wall Street protestors to achieve consensus on vital issues ultimately contributed to the movement’s failure to develop solidarity and enact political change. Although developing actual consensus within a group’s ranks is important for mobilizing collective action, research has shown that perceiving consensus — even if that perception is not entirely grounded in reality — is similarly a vital step in motivating collective social change.

Two separate studies

The published study actually contains two separate but closely related studies. The first study involved 292 volunteer participants (171 women, 121 men); the second, 287 participants (162 women, 125 men). All participants were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online survey website. They ranged in age from 18 to 82, but the mean age in both studies was 35.

When asked to describe their ideology, 137 of the first study’s participants said they were liberal, 93 said they moderate and 62 said they were conservative. In the second study, the numbers were similar: 125 identified themselves as liberal, 96 as moderate and 66 as conservative.

Participants in both studies were asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with 41 statements, some political (“American should strive to strengthen its military”) and some nonpolitical (“I like poetry”). They were also asked to estimate the percentage of other people who share their political persuasion would agree with each statement  — a measure of perceived in-group consensus. Study one’s participants were asked to make this estimate in reference to other people participating in the study. Study two’s participants were asked to do it in reference to Americans in general.

Study’s two’s participants also completed a standardized questionnaire designed to evaluate individuals’ “need for uniqueness.”


Both studies found that moderates and conservatives tended to perceive their beliefs as being more similar to those of others in their political groups than they actually were — evidence of what psychologists refer to as the “false-consensus effect.”

Liberals, on the other hand, generally perceived their beliefs to be less similar to those of other liberals than they actually were, thus displaying an effect that psychologists refer to as “truly false uniqueness.”

Liberals did this in part, the research also revealed, because they possess a stronger desire to feel unique than do moderates and conservatives. (Other research has shown that additional motivations, such as the need for closure and a desire to avoid uncertainty, may also explain why liberals and conservatives differ in the accuracy of their similarity estimates.)

Political implications

The current study’s findings are undoubtedly provocative. They may also have important political implications, as the NYU researchers explain:

Liberals’ greater desire for uniqueness likely undermines their ability to capitalize on the consensus that actually exists within their ranks and hinders successful group mobilization, whereas moderates’ and conservatives’ weaker desire to feel unique (i.e., greater desire to conform) could work to their advantage by allowing them to perceive consensus that does not actually exist and, in turn, rally their base.

In recent years, America has seen the demise of media outlets in which liberal commentators and listeners provided similar positions on political issues (e.g., Air America), whereas their conservative counterparts (e.g., The Rush Limbaugh Show on the radio and The O’Reilly Factor on television) continue to thrive and create influential political discourse. The present research suggests that the failure of media outlets that promote consensual opinions among liberals may be due in part to liberals’ greater desire to develop beliefs and preferences unique from those of other liberals.

As political movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party continue to develop over the coming years, dispositional motivations associated with the political ideologies of the movements’ members could inform the extent to which members accurately perceive the consensus that exists within their ranks and ultimately affect the groups’ ability to strive toward and successfully achieve collective goals.

The study was published online Nov. 18 in Psychological Science, a journal published the the Association for Psychological Science.

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