In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is pluralistic ignorance.
Pluralistic ignorance is a type of social group bias in which members of a social group privately disagree with a certain belief or behaviour, but they publicly go along with what they perceive to be the group norm. However, nearly all members of the group disagree with the perceived norm, meaning the actual group norm is very different than what members think it is. The term pluralistic ignorance is used because group members (plurality) are ignorant of the difference between a perceived and actual group norm.
Group identification is the most common force that drives pluralistic ignorance. People feel they need to act a certain way to show they are a “good” member of the group, but then they assume that others follow group behaviour norms because it’s actually consistent with their personal beliefs.
Where it’s been observed
This phenomenon has been observed in a number of different settings. Think back to when you were in school. Did you ever sit through a lecture that made absolutely no sense? Then at the end of the lecture, when the instructor asked if anyone had any questions, everyone looked around to see if they were the one dumbass that didn’t get it, or if other people were going to ask questions. No hands go up, because everyone thinks they’re the sole dumbass that didn’t get it.
Among post-secondary students, people tend to perceive that their peers are more comfortable with excessive drinking behaviour than they actually are. As a result, people don’t speak out about problematic behaviours because they mistakenly assume that others condone the behaviour.
Misconceptions about group beliefs can also fuel toxic masculinity, with individual men assuming that the majority tolerate or even condone problematic beliefs and behaviours.
Pluralistic ignorance can contribute to the bystander effect, as people erroneously decide that others don’t view the unfolding situation as an emergency. As a result, nobody is prepared to act, even though they’re hoping that someone else will.
An article in Pacific Standard suggested that pluralistic ignorance would explain the recent apparent shift in public opinion around the Confederate flag. The author argued that it wasn’t people’s personal opinions that changed; it was what they believed others’ opinions were. When some people started raising concerns about the Confederate flag, all of a sudden the many people who’d seen it as problematic for years started to realize that they weren’t the least bit alone in their opinions.
This effect can lead people to think that they don’t fit in with their social group, when in fact their own views are far more consistent with the group’s actual views than they suspect. It’s a good reminder that what we assume about others, even if it seems obvious, may be entirely wrong.
Ignorance on an individual level is bad enough, but throw a bunch of people together and we can really start to make a mess of things.
If you’re interested in reading more about this concept, the book Collective Illusions by Todd Rose is an excellent choice. You can read my review here. I’ve also explored this in the post Illusions of Normal: How Well Do We Know What Others Think?
- Iresearchnet.com Psychology Research and Reference: Pluralistic ignorance
- Livingston, J. (2017): Pluralistic ignorance and retreat from the Confederate flag. Pacific Standard.
- Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1996). Pluralistic ignorance and the perpetuation of social norms by unwitting actors. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 28, pp. 161-209). Academic Press.
- Reed College: Pluralistic ignorance
- Wikipedia: Pluralistic ignorance
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.