Wednesday 29th January 2020


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Projection & false consensus

Projection is what the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud called the psychological mechanism, a defense mechanism in his opinion, of seeing or rather imagining in other people negative traits of personality or behaviours that exist in ourselves without our recognition.

Attributing these bad characteristics to others makes us feel better, Freud thought, because in this way we "dump" them or, as he said, "project" them outside of ourselves, thus avoiding to aknowledge that we are not exactly as we wish we were.

Psychoanalysis has long been discredited as a scientific theory of psychology. Freud's concept of projection, for instance, was inextricably connected to his views on the ego and the libido, that no serious modern psychologist working within a scientific framework would accept as well founded and sound hypotheses.

However, there is a modern version of projection, although it is entirely different in important respects from the Freudian idea.

It is called the false consensus effect, or social projection. The first important difference with the psychoanalytic concept of projection is that in the false consensus the individual is well aware of possessing the characteristics projected onto others and is not ashamed of them.

Another major difference is that these characteristics are not all related to the emotional and sexual realms, as they were in Freudian projection, but instead they are often of a cognitive nature, i.e. beliefs, opinions and the like.

In the book How We Know What Isn't So, psychologist Thomas Gilovich defines false consensus thus:

"The false consensus effect refers to the tendency for people's own beliefs, values, and habits to bias their estimates of how widely such views and habits are shared by others. Francophiles think that more people are fans of French culture and cuisine than do Francophobes; drinkers believe that more people like to imbibe than do teetotalers."

One of the causes of the false consensus phenomenon, Gilovich believes, is that we are more likely to be exposed to information that supports our opinions, for example by being surrounded by and associating with people who share our own beliefs.


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A major case of false consensus in today's world

The false consensus effect helps to explain something that is very puzzling and is a case of serious misunderstanding in international relations.

Many people who live in the West have great difficulty in believing that Muslims can hold views that are so distant from those held by themselves, and as a consequence fail to understand what a great number of Muslims think and want.

There is a widespread belief that all human beings must substantially need and desire the same things and share similar views on how to obtain them. This common belief does not take into account the important, powerful effects of the doctrines that shape people's minds and can produce entirely different results in terms of people's worldviews, reactions and behaviours.

Islam is a doctrine with such powerful effects. It teaches a total, systemic way to look at the world, and this way is completely ad odds with the way a Westerner mind is shaped.

A relatively simple example is that of the Islamic Paradise. The Qur'an, Islam's holy book, describes Paradise as not only a place full of all physical, earthly rewards, like fine clothes, jewels, fruit, gardens with everlasting rivers of water, milk, wine (not intoxicating) and honey, the best food, sun and shade, but also a place where men would be "joined" (Qur'an 52:20) to "voluptuous women of equal age" (Qur'an 78:31), "fair women with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes" (Qur'an 44:54), and Allah "made them virgins" (Qur'an 56:36) and they will remain virgins forever.

Many Westerners have heard of this but such a description of Paradise as a place for the pleasures of the flesh is so far from the Christian ideals of rewards after death which they have imbibed as part of their tradition and culture, that they find it difficult to think that Muslim young men can really believe it to the point of being prepared to die for it.

Yet, this is exactly what jihadists, terrorists and suicide bombers themselves often say motivates them. There is no reason to disbelieve them and invent political motivations except the fact that these ideas of Paradise are difficult for people in the West to understand whereas explanations involving social and political grievances are closer to the Western mindset.

This is just an example of a wider problem of misunderstanding between Westerners and Muslims.

The Qur'an, together with the Hadith, i.e. the books of traditions and stories of Islam's prophet Muhammd in which he (and sometimes others) explains how to interpret the Qur'an and leads by example, have a central message: the ultimate goal is that Islam must become the religion of the world, an Islamic super-state must rule the world, Sharia law must be imposed on everyone, and all Muslims have a duty to make this goal become reality with whatever means they have, including lying to the infidels, violence and war.

Not only there is no doubt that this is the written message of Islam, but also the life of Mohammed, who was a warrior, and the history of Islam from its inception until now, which is a history of violent conquests in the name of religion, are even more confirmations of it.

The statistics of today are also clear: 4 or 5 terrorist attacks a day on average are committed by Muslims and reported in the news but more are not reported, even those resulting in multiple deaths.

So, here again we see in action the false consensus effect, when many people in the West refuse to accept even the evidence in front of their own eyes just to continue believing that whatever doctrines they find monstruous and illogical must be considered as such by more other people in the world than is actually the case.


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