What Is… Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance: what we think we know about group norms may be completely wrong

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.

Negative consequences

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?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

17 thoughts on “What Is… Pluralistic Ignorance”

  1. aguycalledbloke

    Wow! This is certain thoughtfully provocative thinking and reading – this explains so much at times on a host of societal issues and topics – people need to speak to each other more! Great topical post Ashley.

      1. aguycalledbloke

        Exactly – that’s the biggest problem we are always assuming the left side is thinking like the right and vice versa.

  2. When we were a post-secondary instructor, after introducing new information, we would say, “Is there anything I can explain better or differently?” We thought this would put the onus on us and take away some of the stigma of asking. Not sure that it did, and it was also intended to help set a classroom culture that said the teacher has accountability for teaching…

  3. I think there is a related phenomenon where everyone in a small group holds that everyone everywhere thinks like individuals in the small group. There are small groups on the Web where everyone is on the same page on certain issues and there is a tendency for individuals in the small group to hold that what is acceptable in the small group is acceptable everywhere. A thousand reddit subreddits could be used as examples.

  4. I’ve wondered about this with regard to some of my questions about fitting in in the Orthodox Jewish community. For example, occasionally someone will make a really offensive joke (racist, sexist etc.) and I feel I should say something, but I’m too scared of being labelled ‘liberal’ or ‘politically correct’ or whatever, and then I’m left wondering if other people were also offended, but afraid of the consequences of being the only one to say something.

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