The False Consensus Bias as Applied to Psychologically Disturbed Adolescents

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In order to examine whether the false consensus bias applied to psychologically disturbed adolescents, outpatients at a rural mental health center who described themselves as very depressed or suicidal, and nondisturbed teenagers (who had no history of psychological treatment and were not at that time seeking psychological treatment), were asked to read a newspaper article about either a child's suicidal or viral illness death. Both groups of adolescents, like adults in previous research, viewed the suicidal child and the surviving family more negatively than they did the child and survivors of a viral illness death. Further, consistent with the false consensus hypothesis, adolescent clients viewed either child as more psychologically disturbed than did nonclients. Also, clients, as compared to nonclients, viewed both parents as more psychologically disturbed prior to either child's death. Results somewhat support the hypothesis of a false consensus bias which operates for depressed, suicidal adolescents when they view the tragedy of a child's death, but not when they are making recommendations about psychological help for the surviving family. Results are interpreted as suggesting that adolescent outpatients either view therapy as not particularly beneficial or as not particularly appropriate for bereaved individuals.

Research by Ross and his associates (Ross, 1977; Ross, Greene, & House, 1977) on the "false consensus bias" shows that people perceive their own choices, judgments, and attributes as relatively common, more so than they perceive choices, judgments, and attributes that are not their own. This hypothesis, applied to psychologically disturbed individuals, would predict that these people would expect others to be more psychologically disturbed than would nondisturbed persons.

Several researchers (Calhoun, Selby, & Faulstich, 1980; Range, Bright, & Ginn, 1985; Rudestam & Imbroll, 1983) have found that people in general react differently to the child and the family in the case of a child's suicidal death than in the case of a nonsuicidal death. Further, differences in reactions to suicidal and nonsuicidal deaths have been partially replicated with adolescents (Gordon, Range, & Edwards, 1987). However, no one has attempted to determine if psychologically disturbed persons in general, or psychologically disturbed adolescents in particular, react differently from nondisturbed persons to information about suicidal and nonsuicidal deaths, or if they react differently to these two types of deaths.

The present investigation attempted to assess differences, if any, between reactions of psychologically disturbed adolescents and reactions of nondisturbed adolescents to information about suicidal and nonsuicidal deaths. Consistent with previous research, reactions to suicidal deaths were expected to be more negative. In addition, however, and consistent with the false consensus bias, psychologically disturbed individuals were expected to react more negatively than were nondisturbed individuals to news about a child's death. A negative reaction in this case was defined as viewing the child who died as psychologically disturbed, viewing the parents as psychologically disturbed prior to the child's death, expecting not to like the parents, blaming the parents, expecting the parents to remain sad and depressed a long time after the incident, feeling that the newspaper should not have described the cause of death, expecting to feel a great deal of tension while visiting the surviving family, believing that the parents should have been able to predict the incident, expecting the family to be ashamed after the incident, thinking that the family should remain isolated for a while after the incident, and thinking that the matter should remain within the family. Further, since these adolescents were in psychological treatment themselves, they were expected to be more likely to recommend professional mental health treatment than were nonclients

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