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KeywordsConsensual Validation Target Referent Global Trait Consensus-seeking Group Similar Others
People vary in their beliefs and attitudes about a variety of issues, ranging from the existence of God to whether transgender people should be allowed to go into public bathrooms that align with their gender identity (a topic that was in the media when we wrote this entry). People also have beliefs about themselves, which can be very holistic (I am a person of worth) to very specific (I have nice eyes). Regardless of the unique beliefs they hold, people want theirs validated; that is, they want to believe their beliefs are the correct ones. For most beliefs, people have no objective, external criteria to determine their correctness or superiority. Instead, people make social comparisons with others. The social comparison process is not unbiased, however. People strategically seek validation of their beliefs through consensus with others (i.e., consensual validation). It is more affectively rewarding to learn that friends, family, and potential acquaintances have the same beliefs as oneself (which provides consensual validation) than to discover they have different beliefs (which provides invalidation). In the first sections below, we further define the concept of consensual validation, including discussing individuals’ innate motivation for this comparison process and how it develops across the lifespan. Then, we discuss various implications of the human need for consensual validation, including that this need influences one’s personality, choices of partners and friends, and other interpersonal outcomes. We end by discussing how one’s motivation for consensual validation affects group processes and behavior.
Motivation for Consensual Validation
According to balance and consistency theories (Festinger 1957; Heider 1958; Newcomb 1961), people prefer consistency between their expectations and their reality. These expectations often take form as personal beliefs (e.g., “lying is wrong”) or specific abilities (e.g., “I am a good writer”). However, subjective expectations are often not tested in an objective reality (Festinger 1954). If beliefs are theorized as conceptualizations of what is inherently real, true, or good, then one cannot look for justification in a reality that also offers opposing beliefs (e.g., “lying is acceptable if it protects someone”). Similarly, assessments of abilities depend largely upon the context (e.g., “I am a good writer for my age”). Because of the difficulty in comparing attitudes and expectations with the physical world, individuals seek to reduce uncertainty in their beliefs and abilities by other means. In the framework of these theories, Festinger (1950) argued “…an opinion, a belief, an attitude is ‘correct,’ ‘valid,’ and ‘proper’ to the extent that it is anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions, and attitudes” (p. 272). The drive that humans have to evaluate their expectations – and to evaluate them positively – leads to comparison with others. This comparison process is otherwise known as consensual validation.
One of the primary reasons people engage in consensual validation processes is to satisfy their effectance motive, which is the basic need to have a consistent, accurate, and certain view of the world (Montoya and Horton 2004; White 1959). The process of seeking information from others to validate one’s opinions, especially about issues related to social reality that have no observable verification (e.g., Festinger 1950), can result in invalidation, however. This inconsistency between people’s views and the views of those who surround them generally produces an uncomfortable psychological state that people want to reduce and avoid. In fact, Festinger (1954) noted that people are often so motivated to avoid these states that they seek out interactions with similar others who are likely to offer validation of their personal beliefs. Similarly, regarding abilities, individuals are more likely to compete with others who are similar to their level of skill in a given attribute in order to receive an accurate appraisal of their own abilities (Garcia et al. 2013).
Other concepts in the psychological literature refer to phenomena similar to consensual validation. For example, psychologists have referred to the fundamental need to experience a shared reality with others (e.g., Echterhoff et al. 2009), in which individuals strive to share with others, or have in common, inner states about target referents, which could be individuals, abstract ideas, or specific objects. Another related social psychology concept is confirmation bias, which involves the process of searching for and interpreting information that is consistent with one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Snyder 1981). For example, people may seek information from others that is consistent with their beliefs, increasing the likelihood of consensual validation, and ignore information that is inconsistent with their beliefs, reducing the likelihood of consensual invalidation. Self-verification is another concept related to consensual validation. In this case, the target referent is the self; people want others to have the same beliefs about them as they have about themselves (Swann and Buhrmester 2012).
Consensual Validation Across the Lifespan
The effectance motive and the related needs for consensual validation and self-confirmation develop over time beginning at a young age. Critical to the understanding of this formation is Sullivan’s (1953) interpersonal theory, which broadly addresses how the self develops and acquires information through personal relationships across the lifespan. According to Sullivan, a large portion of the information people collect throughout their life is consensually validated; it is “the result of a conscious education of relations… derived and discriminated from multiple bases or sources of experience with other people and things” (Mullahy 1970, p. 84). However, the way in which this information is collected and processed changes across six developmental stages or “epochs,” along with the acquisition of language that is used to cultivate the process.
The first epoch of which consensual validation is possible is during infancy and begins at about 12 months of age when an infant can denote some of her or his experiences with words. When an infant begins assigning nouns, adjectives, and verbs to particular objects and events, she or he is attempting to reach a consensus of experience. When these words finally match in their meaning with an individual who is sharing an experience with the infant, then consensual validation occurs. The capacity for consensually validated information grows substantially during childhood, the second epoch of development (about 2–6 years of age). During this time, language expands and becomes more complex, as the child develops new relationships beyond the parenting figure(s), including playmates, family members, and many others (e.g., occupational roles including doctor, preschool teacher, babysitter, etc.). These new relationships can provide further consensual validation to the child, broadening the kinds of information that are understood (Berzoff 2015). At this stage, however, language is still primarily egocentric, with the child using consensual validation as a tool to satisfy her or his own needs.
During the third epoch, the juvenile era (around 6–9 years of age), language moves past the state of egocentricity and becomes used as a tool for communication, learning, and social functioning (Blitsten 1953). Friends play an important role in this stage, as children begin to understand their self in the context of relationships. Children at this age create and further understand reality through consensual validation with friends through storytelling, fantasy, and other forms of play (Berzoff 2015). These forms of consensual validation continue through the fourth epoch of preadolescence (around 9–12 years of age), but the concern for validation from one’s friends becomes even more heightened than in the prior stage. Instead of being primarily used as a means for learning more about the world and social relationships, friends become central in the self-acceptance of the preadolescent by way of validating one’s identity, abilities, and perspectives (Sullivan 1953). Preadolescents often feel the need to validate their ideas with their friends before voicing them, which can result in the reduction of creativity and originality on the part of the adolescent (see Torrance 1971).
It is not until early adolescence (around 12–15 years of age, the fifth epoch) that more independent styles of thinking become commonplace. This may be partially explained by adolescents’ enhanced concern for intimacy during this epoch (Sullivan 1953). Often this is the time that individuals first incorporate intimate exchange into their consensually validating interactions. Through practices such as dating, having relationships, and sex, adolescents test and verify the information that they have acquired or perceived from their caregiver(s), the media, and other public displays of intimacy, belonging, and love. This preoccupation continues into Sullivan’s last proposed stage of development or epoch – late adolescence (around 15–18 years of age). From late adolescence and onwards into adulthood, the consensual validation process is primarily concerned with the verification of the collection of information, beliefs, and abilities that one has acquired thus far in her or his life. Entering the workforce or enrolling in higher education affords people the opportunity to validate whether these experiences have been adequately grasped or if some conceptualizations have been miscast.
Consensual Validation’s Role in Personality Formation, Transformation, and Integration
Beyond language acquisition and the procurement of social information, the role of consensual validation across the lifespan is also critical in the formation, transformation, and integration of personality into one’s more chronic self-structure. Sullivan (1964) noted that the onset of each epoch elicits the likelihood for personality characteristics to emerge, though the ways in which they emerge – in addition to the specific characteristics – depend on the consensual validation that one receives. Specifically, when one receives validation of one’s beliefs, abilities, and attitudes through consensual exchanges, it reinforces such traits, integrating them into the makeup of one’s personality (Chapman 1976). For example, imagine a young boy who has a father who continually tells him that he cannot do anything right. Over the course of his childhood, the boy tries many things to please his father, but no act is successful in obtaining approval (i.e., consensual invalidation). Eventually, the boy may begin to believe that his father is right; thus, low self-esteem is integrated into the boy’s personality.
While many personality characteristics are relatively stable as part of one’s self-structure, there is possibility for them to be changed through future consensually validating experiences (Chapman 1976). If, for instance, the same boy enters primary school, he will be faced with new tasks, challenges, and forms of learning to overcome. If the boy takes well to a particular subject, say math, the teacher may notice and subsequently offer him praise for his skill in arithmetic. Assuming the boy is continually validated in his work, he may begin to believe that he can, in fact, do some things “right,” thus transforming his previously diminished self-esteem. This validation may also accrue from other sources, as the boy makes friends or playmates. As individuals encounter new people, experiences of learning, and cognitive capacities, their opportunity for consensual validation grows.
While consensual validation is necessary to the formation and transformation of personality, it is also critical in the integration of these traits into one’s more chronic self-structure. Central to personality integration is the process of verification, in which one compares the validation she or he receives with her or his past consensual experience(s) (Blitsten 1953). If the current validation one receives for a personality trait is verified by similar validation from the past, then that trait is reinforced and further integrated into her or his self-structure. Integration is most likely achieved upon perceiving these validating experiences as being commonplace, compared to unique or isolated events. Over time and through continued consensually validating experiences, the abovementioned boy’s initially instilled self-doubt can be diminished and replaced instead with confidence in his academic and social abilities. The invalidation he receives from his father is no longer the only experience used to verify his personality; rather, it is now the isolated event to which more positive, validating experiences are compared.
Consensual Validation and the Similarity-Attraction Link
As noted above, people are motivated to obtain consensus of their attitudes, personality attributes, and cognitions; this motive can also affect social choices (who to interact with) and perceptions of others (people may perceive others to be more similar than they actually are). An extensive program of research in social psychology, led by Donn Byrne (e.g., Byrne 1971), has established that there is a strong linear relationship between the proportion of attitudes held in common with a stranger and liking for that stranger. Furthermore, in established relationships, partners and friends tend to be similar. For a recent meta-analysis of hundreds of similarity studies, see Montoya et al. (2008). One prominent explanation provided for the similarity-attraction link is that knowledge that the other has similar attitudes provides consensual validation, which increases effectance or competence and is therefore positively reinforcing (Byrne and Clore 1970). This reinforcement increases positive affect, which in turn leads to attraction. Conversely, invalidation from others (because these others hold opposing beliefs) leads to negative reinforcement, which can generate repulsion. Other explanations have also been provided for the robust similarity-attraction effect found in both experimental and nonexperimental research, including that people assume to be liked by similar others, believe that positive interactions will occur with similar others, and believe that similar others have desirable characteristics. Theoretical debates continue today as to the various explanations of the similarity-attraction link (Montoya and Horton 2013).
Although consensual validation is often discussed as a primary mediator of the similarity-attraction link, it is rarely measured per se. There are exceptions, however. For example, in a recent study, Sprecher et al. (2013) developed measures of several potential mediators of the similarity-liking link, including consensual validation. They measured consensual validation with items such as “My conversations with __ are ‘validating’ – that is, they help to convince me that I am correct in how I approach life” and “Because of who ___ is, I feel reassured of my views of the world.” Based on a sample of participants who completed a survey about either a romantic partner or a close friend, consensual validation (as well as other variables, including certainty of being liked) was found to be associated with both similarity and attraction. Furthermore, evidence was found that consensual validation and the other variables mediated the effect of similarity on attraction.
The drive for consensual validation for one’s attitudes and views is not only likely to affect initial attraction and choice of friends and partners, but can also affect how one reacts to existing friends and other social network members when these members express an attitude divergent from oneself. Learning that a close friend or colleague has a very different opinion than oneself, perhaps on a topic or referent that had not been salient at an earlier time in the relationship, can be disconcerting and lead to conflict in the relationship. The dissonance generated could lead one to like and respect the other person less, lead one to change her or his own attitudes, or lead one to try to change the opinions of the other.
Other Interpersonal Implications of Consensual Validation
Attitudes and opinions exist about many different issues and referents, including about the self, as noted earlier. Beliefs about the self can be in regard to a specific trait (I am a good Euchre player) or a global trait (I am a worthy person). People seek self-verification from others for these beliefs about specific and global traits (i.e., they want others to see themselves as they see themselves). Although need for self-verification can conflict with need for self-enhancement (the desire for positive feedback) in long-term relationships, people generally want feedback that confirms their self-beliefs (Swann and Buhrmester 2012).
Another area in which people seek consensual validation is in regard to their choices of partners. Although the Shakespearian story of Romeo and Juliet might suggest that lack of consensual validation of one’s choice of a love partner might lead to more intensity in love in the relationship (which in fact was found in an early study by Driscoll et al. 1972), most research shows that receiving validation from one’s social network (family and friends) for one’s choice of partners leads to greater love, satisfaction, and stability in the relationship (Sinclair et al. 2014; Sprecher and Felmlee 1992). Further, this validation from one’s network for one’s choice of a partner creates cognitive balance, reduces uncertainty, and can help create dyadic identity, all of which can lead to greater attraction, love, and satisfaction in the relationship (Sprecher and Felmlee 1992).
The Effect of Consensual Validation on Group Behavior
Much of the previous information regarding the processes and outcomes of consensual validation has focused specifically on dyadic interactions. Validation often occurs in the group context, though; a prime example of this is found in organized religion. Religious communities can offer individuals consensual validation of their spiritual identities and worldviews through “shared rituals, behavioral conventions, and normative values and beliefs that are part of one’s religion,” (Silton et al. 2011, p. 359). This validation can offer assurance of one’s meaning and purpose in a world that elicits much uncertainty. From an uncertainty reduction perspective, many people are drawn to organized religion because of the consensual validation it affords of their concern for their own mortality, belongingness, and group identification (Hogg et al. 2010). However, it has been found that this consensus seeking typically only occurs when one is less certain of his or her beliefs (Mulin and Hogg 1999).
Obtaining group consensus of any attitudes or beliefs that one holds can, as previously mentioned, results in validation or invalidation. If one’s beliefs are not validated, he or she is likely to shift them to match the group consensus, but only if the degree of certainty in these beliefs is low (Hochbaum 1953). If, however, one does receive validation from such group consensus seeking, it can strengthen the certainty or confidence in the beliefs or abilities held (Festinger et al. 1952). Unfortunately, this boost in confidence that one receives from groups does not always result in positive outcomes. In fact, it risks maladaptive behavior if other beliefs and viewpoints are not included or tolerated by the group (Festinger 1954). This explains, in part, how groups can engage in destructive, or even reprehensible, behavior. One example of this is the housing market crash that occurred in 2008. There was a general consensus by all parties involved in the housing bubble (bankers, insurance companies, credit agencies, government regulators, home buyers) that the value of home prices would continue to rise, as they had for the past seven decades. Any dissenting opinions were rejected and miscast as foolish, even though they were issued as early as 2002 (Holt 2009). While consensual validation is beneficial – and even crucial – in many aspects of life, it should be remembered that common ideology is not always the most reliable account of truth, nor does it always give way to the best decisions to make.
One concept commonly used to explain why such decision-making can go awry is that of groupthink – a potential, negative implication of the consensual validation process. Coined by Whyte (1952), groupthink refers to the phenomenon when a group of individuals, usually united for some common cause, emphasize consensus seeking (i.e., consensual validation) as more important than critical analysis of an issue. Groupthink is most likely to occur when there is a threatening situational context, the members of the group are highly cohesive, and a strong leader is directing actions (Janis 1982). Historical examples of this form of consensual validation include Nixon’s decisions to tap into the Watergate office, NASA’s decision to launch the Challenger, and the decision by several Penn State officials to cover up a string of childhood sexual abuse cases for 15 years. While the consequences of groupthink can be grave, Janis recommended some practices to avoid disastrous outcomes, including validating ideas with individuals outside the group and encouraging criticism within the group (i.e., a form of consensual invalidation).
In sum, the human drive for consensual validation has been referred to in several diverse literatures within psychology and linked to other processes including individual development (e.g., self-concept, personality), romantic and friendship relationships (e.g., similarity-attraction link), and the quality of group decision-making. It is likely that people vary in their need for consensual validation, although this has not been examined to our knowledge; we encourage this for future research. We also encourage research that examines how people seek and respond to consensual validation information through increasingly popular forms of social media, such as Facebook, including under conditions in which networks are large and holding diverse opinions that may be frequently posted.
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