Pluralistic Ignorance

What Is Pluralistic Ignorance?

Pluralistic Ignorance is a phenomenon social psychologists described as a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts, attitudes, and feelings are different from those of others, even though one’s public behavior is identical (Allport 1924; Miller and McFarland 1991).

Pluralistic ignorance has also been defined as a situation in which a minority position on an issue is incorrectly perceived to be the majority position, or vice versa.

In simple words, Pluralistic ignorance is when members of a group hold a wide range of opinions, beliefs, or judgments but express similar opinions, beliefs, or judgments publicly because each member believes that his or her personal view is different from that of the others in the group.

A scenario of pluralistic ignorance emerges, for instance, in the classroom setting, when students unclear about course content may not ask a question because they assume from the lack of questions that others understand the material (Miller & McFarland, 1987). In this case, each student assumes he or she is the only one to not understand the course content when in fact virtually every student feels the same way.

Interestingly, Jerry Harvey’s Abilene paradox Opens in new window also illustrate the notion of pluralistic ignorance

We’d just done the opposite of what we wanted to do — Jerry Harvey (1988).

The day was hot and dusty, as was often the case in July in the small town of Coleman, Texas. Jerry Harvey, his wife, and his wife’s parents were fanning themselves on the back porch, playing dominoes and drinking lemonade. Suddenly, Jerry’s father-in-law suggested, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria” (Harvey, 1988, p. 13).

Abilene was 53 miles away, it was 104 degrees in the shade, and the only available means of transportation was an unairconditioned 1958 Buick. But the rest of the family chimed in with “Sounds great,” and “Sure, I haven’t been to Abilene in a while.” They traveled all the way to Abilene, had a miserable time, and only when they were back on the porch did they realize that none of them had wanted to go in the first place.

    We all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who—of our own volition—had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and dust storm to eat unpalatable food in a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. To be concise, we’d just done the opposite of what we wanted to do. (Harvey, 1988, p. 14)

The Abilene group suffered from a severe case of pluralistic ignorance. The group members mistakenly believed that their private opinion about the Abilene outing was discrepant from the other group members’ opinions.

Therefore each group member, wishing to be seen as a cooperative member of the family, publicly conformed to what they thought was the group’s norm, each one erroneously assuming that he or she was the only one with misgivings.

Jerry went to Abilene because that is what everyone else wanted to do—or so he thought. Unfortunately, everyone else was thinking the same thing, so the group mismanaged its consensus (Miller & McFarland, 1991).

    In another classic example of pluralistic ignorance, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ tells the story of some swindlers who sell the emperor an invisible robe, proclaiming that only unfit or stupid individuals cannot see the robe. The emperor obviously cannot see the robe, nor can anyone else. However, no one will admit to not being able to see the robe as everyone fears being exposed as unfit.

Centola, Willer, and Macy (2005) describe how continued admiration for the new clothes generates widespread support for the norm, with the spell breaking only when a child, innocent of the norm, laughs at the emperor.

Pluralistic ignorance prompts people to conform to norms that do not actually exist—except in their minds. Miller and McFarland (1980) suggest that embarrassment Opens in new window may be one of the key motivating factors behind pluralistic ignorance. They note that if individuals are inhibited from expressing their true opinions on issues, the result may be pluralistic ignorance.

Often credited as the individual responsible for bringing pluralistic ignorance to the fore, psychologist Floyd Allport (1934) believed that individuals defined the public as ‘an imagined crowd in which … certain opinions, feelings, and overt reactions are universal’ (p. 308). According to others, however, pluralistic ignorance is more than simply the phenomenon of members of a system falling prey to the ‘illusion of universality’ (p. 309).

In general, explications of pluralistic ignorance have generated some degree of conceptual variance, particularly regarding the direction of misperception. Whereas early formulations of pluralistic ignorance (Allport, 1924; Schanck, 1932) emphasized the individual’s misperceiving himself or herself to hold the minority view (when in fact, he or she holds the majority view), current conceptualizations focus on the presence, not direction, of the misperception.

Therefore, pluralistic ignorance no longer refers to the underestimation of majority opinion, but the overestimation or underestimation of opinion (O’Gorman, 1976; Taylor, 1982). The concept now includes situations in which individuals perceive minority opinion to be the majority, and majority opinion to be the minority (Glynn et al., 1995).