Going through the examples of pluralistic ignorance provided in this PsycholoGenie post, will not only help you to understand this socio-psychological phenomenon, but also help you relate to quite a few of them.
» Fast fact
The term ‘pluralistic ignorance’ was coined by American social psychologist, Floyd H. Allport and his student, Daniel Katz in 1931.
you have ever been on the subway, or any other mode of public transport for that matter, you must have come across many people who seem to prefer to keep to themselves. Most of them are either reading a newspaper/book, listening to music, or simply doing nothing. It’s as if they would rather be bored doing nothing than talk to fellow commuters―strangers to be precise. Is conversation with ‘strangers’ actually as difficult as we think it is? Not really, but most people tend to think it is. This example is a classic case of pluralistic ignorance, wherein everyone wants to talk, but assumes that others don’t want to.
What is Pluralistic Ignorance?
Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon in social psychology where most people in a group reject a norm or belief privately, but assume―albeit incorrectly―that most members of the group accept it and thus, they themselves accept it. It’s the desire to conform to a larger group out of the false belief that you are the only one who thinks otherwise.
For instance, very few people are comfortable with drinking practices on campus. Everyone privately wishes to stop drinking, but continue doing so out of fear that if they don’t, they will be considered boring.
It’s a systematic error in a person’s estimation of the beliefs of other people in a group, which results in misrepresentation of the beliefs of the entire group. For instance, many white Southerners were against the concept of slavery, but they never came out openly with their belief as they thought they were in the minority. Similarly, everyone deplores dictatorship, but feel that they are the only ones to do so and thus, choose to keep quiet instead of opposing it.
In a classroom, after explaining how to solve a difficult problem, the teacher asks if anyone has any question, but none of the students raise their hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean every student has understood everything. In this case, every student is led to believe that the lack of questions from other students means everyone has understood how that particular problem is to be solved. So they themselves refrain from asking questions out of fear that everybody will perceive that they are not intelligent.
You are out with a group of friends, when one of your friends does something that you personally detest. You are about to confront him, when you realize that everybody else in the group seems to be comfortable with his behavior, as if it were an accepted norm. You decide not to say anything as you think that everybody will make fun of you. The fact of the matter though, is that all your friends are on the same page as you are; all of you think that the rest of the group is okay with it and thus, decide to keep quiet.
As common as it is, pluralistic ignorance is also very fragile. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, two swindlers sell imaginary clothes to the emperor and assert that those who can’t see these clothes are either unfit for their post or unusually stupid. So everybody in the town, despite knowing that the emperor is not wearing clothes, forms a belief that everybody, except for him, thinks that the emperor is wearing clothes and conforms with the majority. That until a little boy from the crowd cries that the emperor isn’t wearing anything and then the whole town realizes how ignorant they were.
Pluralistic Ignorance and the Bystander Effect
The bystander effect is a social phenomenon which revolves around the fact that people don’t step forward to help a victim when other people are present. This behavior is linked to a psychological concept known as diffusion of responsibility, wherein people assume that the particular task―including helping the victim―is someone else’s responsibility. Having said that, the bystander effect is also linked to pluralistic ignorance, more so because people take a cue on what to do or how to act in certain circumstances, from others.
At the individual level, pluralistic ignorance can affect the morale of an individual as he goes on to believe that he is not at par with other people around him. As for the society, it can be even more detrimental as it gives rise to a norm which is, in fact, disliked by everyone; slavery, for instance.