The Majority Illusion

DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s another cognitive bias to add to our list: the majority illusion. This illusion is not only important to consider for those of us who wade through social media frequently, but more importantly, for those of us who work in schools.

The majority illusion refers to “the local impression that a specific attribute is common when the global truth is entirely different,” according to a recent article on network research on MIT Technology Review.

Kids are especially influenced by their immediate social networks, in addition to their online ones. This study suggests that we are most especially susceptible to the habits and perceptions of our more popular or well-connected acquaintances, believing that many others may be doing or thinking what they are, even when it may only reflect that of a few (big surprise). This can be understood both in its positive and negative effects:

In other words, the majority illusion can be used to trick the population into believing something that is not true.

. . . that immediately explains a number of interesting phenomena. For a start, it shows how some content can spread globally while other similar content does not—the key is to start with a small number of well-connected early adopters fooling the rest of the network into thinking it is common.

. . . Various studies have shown that teenagers consistently overestimate the amount of alcohol and drugs their friends consume. “If heavy drinkers also happen to be more popular, then people examining their friends’ drinking behavior will conclude that, on average, their friends drink more than they do,” say Lermann and co.

This points to a potential key to shifting the mindsets and behavior of an entire school: “identify the popular nodes that can create the majority illusion for the target audience. These influencerati must then be persuaded to adopt the desired behavior or product.”

Get the most well-connected kids sold on the importance of learning and reading first. You might then see a big shift in the attitudes of others.

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