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 were out trail riding on a pleasant evening and you’re abducted by aliens!  The transport you to their home planet.  While you’re there, 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 will start with this premise: that your opinions, your beliefs, your preferences, your values, and your habits are normal and typical.  From that you will start making comparisons and assessments.  You will seek similarities between what you are observing and your own life.  You will make judgments based on your morals.  And you will make a ton of assumptions.  And you know what they say about assumptions!

This is a known phenomenon, and it’s 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 really do share common values or beliefs.  You’ll likely find that many of your friends are friends because of that – you agree on many things.

The reason we call this the false consensus effect is that people don’t all think the same way.  Everyone has different thoughts, individual values and unique 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.  Let’s take a look at some of them.

  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 or she has significantly less cognitive ability than you.  Primarily an instinctual animal, the horse’s lack of human cognitive ability causes them to:
    • fear the unknown,
    • seek a position in the herd (with you, too),
    • not be able to reason through a problem,
    • be incapable of making abstract associations (i.e. walking through a river and walking through a puddle – both are water!)
    • and many other things if you take the time to think about it.

    Lacking an understanding of horse psychology, and let’s be honest – no one teaches it – the False Consensus Effect will cause us to project our own values, opinions and beliefs on the horse.  Because they’re radically different and we don’t think like they do, the way we make sense of their actions is to use ourselves as the comparison.  You’ll know when this is occurring because you’ll hear phrases like, “My horse is misbehaving.”  or “My horse doesn’t respect me.” or “My horse is acting fussy.”  Because if it were a human 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 human qualities to a non-human object or animal in an attempt to explain what they’re doing.   We sometimes personify 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 prohibits us from advancing our knowledge and skills.

    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.  Clearly you are misbehaving.  Clearly you are being disrespectful!

    Compare that to asking a horse to walk through an obstacle they’re scared of.  They might think they’re going to die.  With this new understanding, how will you handle it?

    Well, we certainly won’t get angry at the horse for not doing what we wanted.  Instead, we’re going to put on our responsible leader hat and work through the issue in a positive way to create success for both our horse, and us.  Here are a few thoughts:

    • Before reacting, we will take a moment to think about what happened and, using knowledge of how a horse thinks and acts, understand why it happened.
    • We’ll assess your horse.  What does he or she need?  Clarity in instruction or leadership?  Freedom from brace?  Athletic development?  The ability release to pressure?
    • We’ll then work with our horse to provide those things.
    • This is the best part.  We can watch as what we used to think of as behavior problems and disrespect quickly disappear.
    • We now experience a greater trust and positive relationship with our horse.
    • We can be proud of ourselves and our horse.
  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 not wrong at all, in fact, a large part of learning is modelling others.  Let’s face it, when we start off in the horse world we know nothing.  But we want to know something, right?   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 develop our own style that more closely aligns with our personal values and beliefs. We can all look back through our mental history at practices and methods that we’d never engage in now.  Be honest here – we all have a story of something we did our their past that we’re not necessarily proud of.  But at the time  we did it, we were able to rationalize our actions; 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 taking the right lead.  I’d better call an equine body worker,” or, “My horse used to be doing (insert awesome thing your horse did here) but now she isn’t.  It’s back to the trainer, I guess!” 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, and more importantly, how they work together, we have nothing else to go on. We make presumptions using our understanding of humans as a basis of comparison.  But here’s the kicker: because the horse is not you, and moreover not a human, 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?”

Honestly, great question.  And kudos to my client for seeking help.  It’s what I’m here for.  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 back, she will be physically unable to move legs 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 ‘something’ could be buck.

So what was the solution?  We showed her how to release to pressure, that is, to let go of muscular and mental tension as a response of our leadership.  Then she was able to 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. That is all about balance and where the horse transfers mass – again, something that’s unfortunately not part of conventional rider training.  We broke the exercise down into specific progressions and worked on them individually: release in forward motion, adding pressure to release on the right side and moving the front and hind independently.  Sound like a long term process? It wasn’t. That work was accomplished in one session.

Armed with knowledge and it’s practical application, this horse – and her owner – have never had 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 or she is doing.  We can toss misunderstandings, personification and anthropomorphism aside and use our new knowledge to build experience which allows us to advance 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.

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About amazingh

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

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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