Have you ever disagreed on something, but kept quiet so as not to “disrupt” because it seemed that everyone agreed?
It is a relatively common situation that we have all experienced at some time: we think we know what others think and we adapt to that implicit rule. We believe that our opinion or feelings are too far from what others think or feel, so we prefer to remain silent and show a tacit agreement.
In the worst case, we might even change our behavior and attitudes to conform to what we believe to be the “norm”. However, in this way we could end up perpetuating rules and stereotypes with which no one agrees, feeding what is known as pluralistic ignorance.
What is pluralistic ignorance?
The term pluralistic ignorance was first described by psychologist Floyd H. Allport and his students Daniel Katz and Richard L. Schank. They defined it as “A state that occurs when most members of a group think that most other members do not share their group evaluations, customs, or goals.”
In other words, pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which many people mistakenly believe that the others do not agree with them, when in fact most people share the same opinion. It implies believing that our ideas, opinions or feelings are far removed from what others think, experience or feel.
This psychosocial phenomenon occurs when virtually everyone in a group or society privately rejects a belief, opinion, or practice, but believes that nearly everyone else accepts it. As a result, we behave in a certain way, only because we believe that the others behave that way or we express an opinion because we assume that it is what the others want to hear.
Accepting a repudiated norm by believing in a false opinion
Allport and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to investigate the scope and impact of pluralistic ignorance. In one such experiment, they asked college students to estimate the percentage of their classmates who regularly drank alcohol. Interestingly, the students significantly overestimated the number of drinkers on campus. This led them to drink excessively, with the aim of fitting in with the group and adapting to the “norm”.
Another classic psychology study conducted in 1932 found that community members believed that the others were uniformly supportive of the local church’s opposition to card games and tobacco since people commonly expressed such opinion in public. However, in private these same people admitted that they did not support the moral prohibitions of the church, but they did not dare to express these views in public thinking that the others would reject them.
The irony is that their seemingly dissonant “heretical” view was actually the normative view of their community, albeit kept secret. When everyone is reluctant to express their most genuine thoughts and emotions so as not to feel embarrassed or rejected by the others, people end up feeling more alone and misunderstood.
The psychological mechanism that sustains pluralistic ignorance
Pluralistic ignorance begins with a discrepancy between public actions and private feelings. Group members aren’t really ignorant of each other’s private feelings; rather, they think they know them, but they are wrong. In other words, we misunderstand what others think or feel.
Our tendency to group identification is one of the main causes of pluralistic ignorance. Too often we get carried away by the desire to be model members of society and/or fit in with the group. Pluralistic ignorance stems from a generalized conformity to social norms, which determine what is appropriate behavior in certain contexts, be it a meeting room or a hospital, as well as with friends, strangers or co-workers.
These rules dictate, for example, that we must publicly support friends and colleagues, we must not question the personal choices of the others, and we must remain calm and in control at all times. However, many times these social norms are too rigid or have become archaic and do not reflect our opinions and feelings. If we limit ourselves to following them, we will be transmitting a distorted image that feeds pluralistic ignorance.
The perception of happiness is a good example to understand how this mechanism works. In fact, psychologists from Stanford University found that the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance also extends to the emotional plane. They found that people continually overestimate the level of happiness and well-being of the others and infer that this is the norm.
In part, this is because many people suppress their negative moods in public and try to hide their failures by always showing their best face. If we are not able to differentiate between what we see in public and what we see in private, it is easy to assume that these attitudes reflect reality, when they do not.
As Anton Chekhov wrote: “We neither hear nor see those who suffer. The terrible things in life take place behind the scenes.” Of course, that perception is illusory, but its consequences are very real since they feed the vicious circle of pluralistic ignorance.
Those who suffer of pluralistic ignorance tend to see themselves as deviant members of the group: perhaps less informed, more tense, less committed, more unhappy, less competent… This leads them to feel bad about themselves and demand even more to achieve unrealistic ideals, which often it only generates a deep sense of frustration.
As Charles de Montesquieu wrote centuries ago: “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than the others, which is often difficult, since we think they are happier than they are.” In other words, we fall victim to our false perceptions by pursuing unattainable goals.
Pluralistic ignorance can cause people to adopt attitudes and behaviors with which they do not identify or feel comfortable just to align with what the others supposedly feel or think. The result is a general decrease in the well-being of all, the perpetuation of norms that have lost general support and, of course, the implantation of a double standard in relationships that banishes authenticity.
The good news is that to overcome the effects of pluralistic ignorance, it is often enough to dare to say what we think and express what we feel. We will not always find resonance in the closest environment, but it is most likely that honesty will end up generating an expansive wave of authenticity that will put an end to motivated ignorance.
Jordan, A. H. et. Al. (2011) Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 37(1): 120–135.
Prentice, D. A. & Miller, D. T. (1996) Pluralistic Ignorance and the Perpetuation of Social Norms by Unwitting Actors. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology; 28: 161-209.
O’Gorman, H. J. (1986) The discovery of pluralistic ignorance: An ironic lesson. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences; 22: 333-347.
Schanck, R. L. (1932). A study of a community and its groups and institutions conceived of as behaviors of individuals. Psychological Monographs; 43(2): i–133.