Have you ever been in a classroom or a business meeting or a conference and had a question or been confused by the presentation, and when the person running the show asked, “Does anyone have any questions?” or, “Does anyone not understand?” or, “Is anyone confused?” you looked around, saw no one else raising their hands, and then chose to pass on the opportunity to clear up your confusion?
If so, then, first of all, you are a normal, fully functioning human being with a normal, fully functioning brain, because not only is this common and predictable, there’s a psychological term for why most people don’t speak up in situations like these. It’s called pluralistic ignorance.
In a “Does anyone have any questions?” scenario like this, each confused individual waits to see if anyone else raises their hands, not wanting to be singled out as the only person falling behind. When no one does, each then assumes they must be the only person who has no idea what is going on and decides to remain silent. After a few seconds, the speaker moves on, and the result is a shared, inaccurate view of reality in which everyone thinks that everyone else has no questions. The speaker thinks the room is following along just fine, and everyone begins living a lie.
There are several ways to define pluralistic ignorance, and that’s because it’s kind of a brain twister when you try to put it into words. Psychologist Deborah Prentice says, it’s “a phenomenon in which you feel like you’re different from everyone else, but in fact you are exactly the same. It’s a kind of illusory deviance, a sense that you are not with the majority that everyone in the majority can have simultaneously.”
And this phenomenon scales up to the level of norms. When people are unhappy with a norm, but aren’t sure if they are alone in that thinking, when they don’t know what the majority opinion truly is, they play it safe and adhere to the norms of the day, but since we can’t read each other’s minds, we assume that others are following norms because they actually believe in them. Everyone in the group, at the same time, gets stuck following a norm that no one wants to follow.
The false belief that the majority supports an unpopular norm slows down the process of ending it and sways policy makers, employers, advertisers, and the rest of society to act as though they live in a world that isn’t really there. And When change is on the horizon, pluralistic ignorance keeps people on the fringe, the sort of people whose beliefs and attitudes will be phased out by that change, clinging to their outdated worldviews for longer than they would otherwise. It also keeps their opponents feeling less supported than they truly are while pushing people in the middle to favor the status quo. In the end, a make-believe status quo changes the way everyone acts and thinks. As sociologists Hubert J. O’Gorman and Stephen L. Garry once put it, in situations like these, people often “unintentionally serve as cultural carriers of cognitive error.”
Pluralistic ignorance has been blamed for everything from excessive drinking on college campuses to the persistence of racial segregation well into the 1970s. So, how do you deal with such a strange and mind-twisting phenomenon? Well, for some norms, the solution is simple, though it can take a lot of organization and effort. You must ask everyone what they really think and feel, and then you broadcast that to everyone in some way. You must make the private public. You must make it safe to say what is really on your mind — or you simply reveal that it was safe to do so all along.
Many scientists bring up the parable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the story by Hans Christian Andersen, a vain emperor hires two tailors who tell him they’ve made a suit of clothes so fine that it appears invisible to people who are unfit for their job or are very dumb. The trick, of course, is that the tailors haven’t made anything at all. All the emperor’s lackeys and subjects act as if his clothes were beautiful and amazing out of fear of appearing stupid or unfit, until finally a child points out that the emperor is walking around naked. At that point, everyone sighs in relief and feels safe to say what they were thinking all along. Stories with similar plots go back to antiquity, so the idea has been with us for a long time. The takeaway is usually: if someone has the courage to speak up, then the spell will be broken.
But there is an exception. A dark, terrible exception. When almost everyone in a group privately disagrees with a norm, or a decision, or an idea, or a practice, or a plan…but everyone also thinks they are alone in that disagreement, they may go along with what they think is the consensus, which leads a group of people to prepare to act in a way that no one actually wants to act. When one person speaks up, instead of breaking the spell, the crowd will sometimes shout that person down.
That’s what happened in 1978 at Jonestown, when Jim Jones asked 700 people to kill 300 of their children and then themselves. One person, Christine Miller, stood up and plead for everyone to choose another option. She defied her leader, and her community. Instead of joining her in revolt, the people around her engaged in what psychologists call false enforcement. By shouting at her, they signaled they were willing to die to show their loyalty to the group, even though in so doing they destroyed the very group to which they were signaling their allegiance.
False enforcement is one of our most twisted predilections, a sort of algorithmic mental malfunction that can cause pluralistic ignorance to turn deadly, and in this episode, you will learn how prevalent it is out here among our everyday lives, and what we can do about it.
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Deborah Prentice is a professor of psychology and provost at Princeton University. Her work focuses on “how people are guided by norms and constrained by norms; how they respond when they feel out of step,” and how they determine what the norms of their groups and communities are; and how they react… to those who violate social norms.”
Robb Willer is a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior and the director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University. He studies the social forces that bring people together, divide them, and shape their political attitudes.
Links and Sources
IMAGE CREDIT: Emperor’s New Clothes: Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 – 1859)
IMAGE CREDIT: Christine Miller: San Diego State University
IMAGE CREDIT: Jonestown: NBC News Archives
MUSIC CREDIT: Mogwai, Drew Garraway, Snabish