alien planet - the false consensus effect

The False Consensus Effect in the Horse World

It’s Psychology 101 time!  Ever heard of the False Consensus Effect? This is a fun one because we can all relate to this.

Let me pose a question: How do we make sense of the world around us? 

It’s an interesting question you might never have thought about.  Let’s have some fun putting this into context.  Suppose you’re an explorer and have landed on an alien planet.  You observe cultures and customs that are nothing like anything you’ve seen before.  You have no idea what is going on or why anyone is doing what they do.  How are you going to start making sense of that?

alien planetYour brain will want to make order of what you see.  Your understanding of something you are not familiar with starts by using information you already have.  Without consciously thinking about it, you’ll start with a base: that your opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical.  From that you will start making comparisons, assessments, seeking similarities and sometimes making judgments and assumptions.

This is a known phenomenon called the False Consensus Effect.  In essence it is the belief that everyone thinks the same way you do.  This effect is exacerbated when you’re in a group of people that do share common values or beliefs.

The reason it’s false is that people don’t all think the same way.  Everyone has different thoughts, values and understandings.  It’s what makes the world an interesting place to live in. Can you imagine what our social culture would be like if everyone agreed on everything?  If everyone liked exactly the same things?  It would sure make marketing easy, that’s for sure.  Political debates would be a thing of the past.  Facebook and Instagram wouldn’t need ‘likes’.

In our horse world, we can observe the False Consensus Effect in a few different scenarios.

  1. A belief that the horse thinks as you do and shares the same values.  Lets start off by stating the obvious – not only is the horse a different species but he has significantly less cognitive ability than you.  Primarily an instinctual animal, the horse’s lack of human cognitive ability causes him to:
    • fear the unknown,
    • seek a herd order (with you, too),
    • not be able to reason his way through a problem,
    • not be able to make associations (i.e. all muddy puddles are the same)
    • and many other things if you take the time to think about it.

    The False Consensus Effect will cause us to project our own values, opinions and beliefs on the horse.  Because he’s different and we don’t think like he does, the way we make sense of his actions is to use ourselves as the comparison.  We use phrases like, “My horse is misbehaving.”  or “My horse doesn’t respect me.” or “My horse is acting fussy.”  Because if it were us doing those things, that’s what we’d think about it.

    That’s no different than hearing someone say, “My car hates me.  Every time I drive it, it breaks down.” Sometimes we refer to this phenomenon as personification.  That means that we’re subconsciously pretending the horse (or a car) has human qualities in order to explain away his actions.   We do that when we seek an understanding of what we see but lack the knowledge to explain it.  And it’s critical as horse-people that we overcome this, because it halts our advancement.

    Let’s use our alien planet scenario again.  At some point during the day, all the aliens walk into a building.  You follow.  You watch as, in turn, each alien takes a cup of what appears to you to be acid and pours it on their head.  Obviously they love this – but your belief is that acid will eat through your scalp.  So you hesitate and don’t pick up a cup.  The lead alien is outraged and whacks you with a stick.  Were you misbehaving?  Were you disrespecting the leader?

    Instead of getting angry at the horse for not doing what you wanted, lets put on our responsible leader hat and work through the issue in a way that will end up in a positive for both you and your horse.  Here’s a few steps:

    • Before reacting, take a moment to think about what happened, and using knowledge of how a horse thinks and acts, why.
    • Assess your horse.  What does he need?  Clear leadership?  Freedom from brace?  Athletic development?  The ability to handle pressure in a positive way?
    • Work with him to provide those things.
    • Watch as what you used to think of as behavior problems and disrespect quickly disappear.
    • Experience a greater trust and positive relationship with your horse.
    • Enjoy the fruits of your labor!


  2. The group mentality.  If you ride a specific discipline, ride with the same group of friends or honor a specific clinician / trainer that promotes certain methods or styles, you’ll likely adopt their practices.  That’s what learning is all about.  Let’s face it, when we start off in the horse world we know nothing.  But we want to know something – that’s honorable.  What we do sometimes is mimic others and rationalize (or seek rationalization of) why others are doing what they do.  As we gain knowledge, we might not agree with those actions anymore and drift to a style that more closely aligns with our values and beliefs. We can all look back through our mental history at practices that we’d never engage in now; some we might not necessarily be proud of.  At the time we thought our actions were justifiable, but now we know better.  It’s a part of learning and it’s a part of being human and we all go through it.horses are not defective
  3. When confronted with evidence that a consensus does not exist, we often assume that the horse (or person) is defective in some way. You’ll be intimately familiar with this one. I can guarantee you’ve heard someone say, “My horse isn’t doing this, what’s wrong with him?”  or “My horse isn’t taking the right lead.  I’d better have him adjusted.” Our first presumption – because we’re using our own bodies and values as a reference – is that something is wrong or something is out.  That’s only a fraction of the reality of possibilities, but when we don’t have an understanding of how the horse’s mind and body work together we have nothing else to go on. We make presumptions using our understanding of humans as a basis of comparison.  But because the horse is not you, the comparison has no validity.

I once worked with a client once that had this concern: “My horse side-passes to the right fine, but when I pressure her to side-pass to the left, she crow-hops.  What’s wrong with her?”

First of all, a horse having more difficulty with pressure on one side is almost a given.  Lets look at how the mental and physical pieces tie together here.  If she’s having trouble with pressure on her right side (asking for a left side-pass) then when pressure is applied, her response will be to brace.  That means her mental tension has led to physical tension – muscles that need to be loose in order to move are now tight. With tension in her lower back and shoulders, she will be physically unable to move as intended.  Applying more pressure will cause her to brace more, making it even harder.  Eventually if more pressure is added, she will do something – and that could be buck.

So what was the solution?  We showed her how to release, soften and yield to pressure, particularly on the right side. The owner and I discussed her mare’s body and what has to happen bio-mechanically in order to perform the maneuver. We broke the exercise down into component pieces and worked on them individually: release in forward motion, adding pressure to release on the right side and then moving the front and hind independently.  Sound like a long term process? It wasn’t. The majority of that work was done in one session.

The benefit is that, armed with knowledge and it’s practical application, this horse – and her owner – will never have the problem again.  Likely she’ll never have this problem with any horse she works with in the future either, because she has an understanding she didn’t have before.

So how do we avoid the treacherous False Consensus Effect?  In a nutshell, we learn about how our horses think and how their bodies work.  With that knowledge we no longer have to guess about why a horse is doing what he’s doing, and we can shrug off the chains of personification and start advancing in our success.  

Happy 2018!

Scott Phillips – January 2018

In each one of our Amazing Horse Country clinics we learn to work with your horse in a way we know he understands.  We learn his language, a bit about how his body works, and use that to ask him to do things in a logical, progressive manner.  We learn about his fears and need for leadership and then we learn how to help him surmount those difficulties. Everyone in our clinics is ultimately working toward the same goal: enjoyment and success through riding their horse in whatever discipline or event they’re involved in.  We are a growing community that supports each other and celebrates our successes.


3 thoughts on “The False Consensus Effect in the Horse World

  1. Marjorie Phillips

    This is my reply to the excellent article on False Consensus Effect. When I took Psyc 101 it was called Transference or transfer of ideas or projecting your thoughts, beliefs and ideas onto another. (I must have been paying attention that day to remember that from about 48 years ago!) Working with you Scott and others I have learned to not do this with horses. I notice too you talk about Personification. I read an amusing article calling personification, Resistentialism. It must be a new word as the computer does not recognize it. I am pleased you will have a forum for chit-chat, etc. I better get busy to take advantage of this generous offer.

    1. Christa martindale

      I love to learn how a horse learns . It hurts my heart when I see people that have no clue and force a horse to do something aggressively because they lack the knowledge to ask the horse in a manner it understands. Why are some people to proud to as for help ? Or to try learn instead they resort to unnecessary roughness

      1. Scott Phillips Post author

        I think there are a few answers to that. My thoughts are that primarily, we are very adept at using our hands and primarily communicate through speech. We can create, manipulate, push and pull, etc. We take it for granted that we can do that, because we do it almost every waking minute. When we speak, someone listens and understands what we said. Again, we take that for granted. Now the horse enters the picture. They neither have arms nor the ability to speak or understand a spoken language. They’re very adept at directing/leading each other with space and energy; communicating with the same with the addition of empathy, focus and intent. The biggest problem we have as humans is that our pride is offended – and we are tempted to immediate frustration – when something doesn’t do the thing we want. Picture someone punching the screen of their phone harder and cursing because it isn’t responding fast enough. Even babies act this way – it’s human. We take offense because our expectations were not met – and we are tempted to be angry and act out. I emphasize ‘tempted’ because, as humans, we have one skill that horses do not – the ability to rationalize and choose a proactive response. That is something we have to learn and practice. I like your first sentence, “I love to learn how a horse learns.” I think it’s essential that we do. When we choose to seek knowledge of how a horse really thinks and why he does what he does, we’re taking some very proactive steps to being a leader he can trust.


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