An entrepreneur must pitch her idea to a group. If 50% of the audience likes the idea it will get funded. The entrepreneur has prepared two different presentations and must decide which to use. The first presentation tends to resonate with some people particularly well—it creates some strong advocates. But it also leaves some people less enthusiastic or even negative toward the idea.  The second presentation tends to win over the majority of the audience. However, they're more lukewarm in their overall enthusiasm; they like it, but their support is soft, and could change. In this situation, the entrepreneur must choose between a strategy that creates stronger advocates that are fewer in number—an extremity strategy—or a strategy that creates weaker advocates that are larger in number—a consensus strategy.  What should she do?

The Allure of Consensus

While it is sometimes possible to win over a group and get all of them excited about an idea, my colleagues and I were interested in what people do when they must choose between persuasion strategies that involve tradeoffs between more lukewarm supporters and fewer enthusiastic supporters. We conducted a series of eight experiments to see which strategy people prefer. These experiments involved a range of populations from college students to adults. The experiments also involved different paradigms, but they shared in common confronting participants with decisions where a tradeoff between the number of people in support and the enthusiasm of those supporters varied. For example, a participant might have to choose between a strategy that led to 90% of people favorable toward the idea, but who indicated their support was only slightly favorable versus a strategy that led to only 60% of people in support, but those supporting saying they were highly favorable.

Results showed that most people consistently preferred strategies that favored consensus over strategies that favored extremity. This happened even when both strategies were deemed successful (for example, both strategies resulted in 50% of an audience liking a pitch). We dubbed this outcome the "allure of consensus."

Why does this happen? We found consensus is used as a simple decision rule or mental shortcut. People like to see a lot of people in favor of their position; they tend not to think about how strong that support is. As a result, they feel they are less likely to lose when more people support their proposition. People also reported liking consensus because the group was more harmonious. People just want everyone to agree.

The Venus Flytrap

An interesting aspect of the allure of consensus is that it can, in some cases, be likened to a sort of Venus flytrap.  The Venus Flytrap is a carnivorous plant that attracts unsuspecting flies to it only to consume them. In a similar sense, people are attracted to consensus in situations where it ultimately causes them to fail at the very goal they hope to achieve. We found that people relied on consensus even in situations where it would ultimately lead to a failed persuasive attempt. Specifically, we had participants play a series of games with a (bogus) savvy competitor, who could dismantle consensus by attacking participants' weakest supporters. If participants chose an extremity strategy they would win, as their supporters would be too strong.

Was consensus a Venus flytrap? While a competitor shifted some participants away from consensus—they saw the trap and the potential to lose—the majority of participants still chose a consensus strategy. They picked an option that risked losing.

Did people always fall for the Venus fly trap? No, but it was difficult for them to override their preference for consensus. In one study we told participants there was a right answer, offered a bonus payment if they won the game, and encouraged them to think through how a competitor would play the game. With these factors in place, people understood the weakness of consensus and shifted toward an extremity strategy. However, it took a lot!

The Value of Simple Games

Our research seeks to understand how people think about persuasion. Although simple in form, the games we use in research are a starting point to understand how people think about and strategize in persuasive situations. These games also show us how people might approach persuasive situations in ways that do not ultimately achieve persuasion. It reveals that we may sometimes favor strategies—such as consensus—that will not always achieve persuasive results. 

Although consensus has its allure, it is not always the correct strategy to achieve desired results in groups. Instead, people need to stop and ask themselves when each strategy is effective. For example, in a simple yes or no vote, it may be sufficient to have consensus to win the vote. However, in situations where people might be subsequently influenced, or have to decide whether it is even worth voting, having strong advocates and allies—people who will resist influence and follow through with a vote, might be a better approach.

For Further Reading

Rucker, D. D., D'Agostino, J., Dyer, M., & Tormala, Z. L. (2024). The allure of consensus: People (over)seek consensus in selecting group persuasion strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Derek Rucker is the Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. His areas of study include attitudes, persuasion, compensatory consumption, and social rank.