Adapted from the Washington Post WonkBlog:
The below chart represents a network of the entire population of a fictional and very small town.
Each circle represents a person. Two people who know each other are connected by a line. People who are not connected by a line have never met.
The day’s political issue: whether baseball caps are fashionable. Each circle is colored to indicate that person’s stance on the issue. Blue circles think caps are fashionable. Orange circles think that caps are not fashionable. (On this issue, everyone has an opinion.)
The town will be voting on whether to officially consider baseball caps fashionable.
A polling firm recently asked whether each person thought that the town would vote to deem baseball caps fashionable.
Assume each person polled based their prediction solely on how the majority of people they know felt about baseball caps (excluding his or her own view).
Did the polling firm find the measure was expected to pass or fail?
Quick answer: The majority opinion would be that the measure would pass and deem baseball caps fashionable.
The WonkBlog’s analysis:
Based solely on their friend networks, most people think the measure would pass.
Taken at face value, the result seems odd.
Only three people think baseball caps are fashionable. But, as shown in these charts, most people think almost everyone else is for baseball caps.
The chart below lays out each of these individual views.
Most people think baseball caps are not fashionable (represented by orange circles).
But most have a majority of friends who are for baseball caps (blue circles).
So, the majority think they’re in the minority.
Researcher Kristina Lerman calls this the “majority illusion” … flawed perceptions that lead to “the few shaping the opinions of the many.”
But paradoxes like the majority illusion apply concretely to our world, from the way we fight drug epidemics to how quickly public opinion sometimes flip flops.
Understanding the theory behind them gives essential insight into why people form the opinions and make the decisions that they do.
Bottom line: If people are easily swayed by peer pressure and want to be aligned with the most popular view … they may be misled by their narrow social network … the majority that they see may just be an illusion.
The WonkBlog’s entire analysis and its commentary on real political issues is worth reading.