Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic Ignorance Definition

Pluralistic ignorance occurs when people erroneously infer that they feel differently from their peers, even though they are behaving similarly. As one example, imagine the following scenario: You are sitting in a large lecture hall listening to an especially complicated lecture. After many minutes of incomprehensible material, the lecturer pauses and asks if there are any questions. No hands go up. You look around the room. Could these people really understand what the lecturer is talking about? You yourself are completely lost. Your fear of looking stupid keeps you from raising your hand, but as you look around the room at your impassive classmates, you interpret their similar behavior differently: You take their failure to raise their hands as a sign that they understand the lecture, that they genuinely have no questions. These different assumptions you make about the causes of your own behavior and the causes of your classmates’ behavior constitute pluralistic ignorance.

Pluralistic IgnoranceAnother case of pluralistic ignorance that is familiar to many college students concerns drinking on campus. Alcohol use is prevalent at most colleges and universities. Students drink at weekend parties and sometimes at evening study breaks. Many drink to excess, some on a routine basis. The high visibility of heavy drinking on campus, combined with reluctance by students to show any public signs of concern or disapproval, gives rise to pluralistic ignorance: Students believe that their peers are much more comfortable with this behavior than they themselves feel.

Pluralistic Ignorance and Social Dynamics

Pluralistic ignorance plays a role in many other dysfunctional social dynamics. In addition to the cases already mentioned, researchers have linked pluralistic ignorance to the failure of bystanders to intervene in emergency situations. Bystanders recognize that their own inaction is driven by uncertainty and fear of doing the wrong thing; however, they think other bystanders are not intervening because these others have concluded that the situation is not an emergency and there is no need to intervene. Pluralistic ignorance also acts as an impediment to the formation of new relationships. Consider the case of Jack and Jill, who secretly harbor romantic interest in each other. Jack does not approach Jill because he fears that she will reject him, and Jill does not approach Jack for the same reason. However, Jack assumes that Jill is not approaching him because she is not interested in him, and Jill makes the same assumption about Jack’s failure to approach her. In this case, pluralistic ignorance, rather than a lack of interest, is keeping Jack and Jill apart. Finally, pluralistic ignorance keeps nurses from acknowledging the stresses of their jobs, prison guards from showing sympathy for their prisoners, corporate board members from acknowledging their concerns about their firm’s corporate strategy, and ordinary citizens from acknowledging concerns about their government’s foreign policy. Pluralistic ignorance is a very common dynamic in social life.

Pluralistic Ignorance and Social Norms

Pluralistic ignorance begins with widespread conformity to social norms—norms that govern appropriate behavior in the classroom, at a party, in a boardroom, or in a hospital; norms that regulate behavior with friends, strangers, or colleagues. Indeed, most social contexts and relationships are characterized by normative expectations for behavior, whether people realize it or not. These norms dictate, for example, that one should show unwavering public support for friends and colleagues, should not challenge people’s personal choices, and should appear calm, collected, and in control at all times. Of course, often these behaviors do not reflect how people truly feel. Often people have misgivings about their peers’ behavior; often they do not agree with their colleagues’ proposals; often they feel uncertain, anxious, and fearful. When discrepancies between norm-driven behavior and private feelings arise, pluralistic ignorance is the result. People know that their own behavior does not reflect their true sentiments, but they assume that other people are acting on what they genuinely feel.

Consequences of Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance has been linked to a wide range of deleterious consequences. For example, victims of pluralistic ignorance see themselves as deviant members of their peer group: less knowledgeable than their classmates, more uptight than their peers, less committed than their fellow board members, less competent than their fellow nurses. This can leave them feeling bad about themselves and alienated from the group or institution of which they are a part. In addition, pluralistic ignorance can lead groups to persist in policies and practices that have lost widespread support: This can lead college students to persist in heavy drinking, corporations to persist in failing strategies, and governments to persist in unpopular foreign policies. At the same time, it can prevent groups from taking actions that would be beneficial in the long run: actions to intervene in an emergency, for example, or to initiate a personal relationship.

Fortunately, pluralistic ignorance can be dispelled, and its negative consequences alleviated, through education. For example, students who learn that support for heavy drinking practices is not as widespread as they thought drink less themselves and feel more comfortable with the decision not to drink. Alcohol intervention programs now routinely employ this strategy to combat problem drinking on campus.


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