Pluralistic Ignorance: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published May 11, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Pluralistic ignorance refers to a situation in which virtually every member of a group privately disagrees with what are considered to be the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the group as a whole.
  • Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon that occurs when people mistakenly believe that everyone else holds a different opinion from their own.
  • This often leads to a false consensus, where people conform to the thought-to-be majority opinion, even though it may not be considered just by the majority of people.
  • Pluralistic ignorance can have dangerous consequences, as it can lead to people remaining silent in the face of injustice or engaging in risky behaviors. These can manifest in environments ranging from the classroom to entire political systems.

Definition

Pluralistic ignorance is a term used to explain why people also fail to respond to an emergency when there are other people around. When we witness an emergency, we may be unsure what to do, so we rely on the behavior of others to guide us.

Pluralistic ignorance results from the tendency to rely on the overt reactions of others when defining an ambiguous situation.

Pluralistic ignorance occurs when a person does not agree with a certain type of thinking but believes that everyone else adheres to it and as a result, follows that line of thinking even though no one believes it.

Sociologists have suggested that sudden changes in social norms — such as norms regarding sexual behavior – can be explained by the gradual recognition by many individuals that others in the group think in the same way as themselves, rather than what was seen as the "dominant" view (O'Gorman, 1986).

The term pluralistic ignorance first was described by the psychologist Floyd H. Allport and his students, Daniel Katz and Richard L. Schank (O'Gorman, 1986).

They defined it as "a state of affairs that exists when most members of a group think that most other members do not share their evaluations of the group, its customs, or its goals" (p. 446).

In other words, pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which individuals mistakenly believe that everyone else disagrees with them, when in reality, most people actually share the same opinion.

Allport and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to investigate pluralistic ignorance. In one study, they asked college students to estimate the percentage of their fellow students who drank alcohol regularly.

The results showed that the students significantly underestimated the number of drinkers on campus (O'Gorman, 1986).

In the classroom and at universities

Imagine the following scenario. A student is listening to an especially complicated lecture on math in a large lecture hall.

After many minutes of incomprehensible material, and nearly drifting to sleep, the lecturer pauses and asks if there are any questions.

No one asks any questions or raises their hand.

The student himself cannot understand anything — and yet, looking at the behavior of their classmates, they may interpret their similar behavior differently.

The student ultimately takes the failure of his classmates to raise their hands as a sign that they understand the lecture genuinely had no questions.

The different assumptions made about the causes of one's own behavior and those of the people around them constitute pluralistic ignorance (O’Gorman, 1986).

Similarly, alcohol use is prevalent at most universities, and many students drink in excess, sometimes on a routine basis.

The high visibility of heavy consumption of alcohol on campus, combined with a reluctance by students to show any public signs of concern or disapproval, may lead to pluralistic ignorance, as students believe that their peers are more comfortable with alcohol binging than they themselves feel (O’Gorman, 1986).

In Dysfunctional Social Dynamics

Pluralistic ignorance is at the root of many dysfunctional social dynamics.

For example, pluralistic ignorance may keep 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 expressing concerns about their government's foreign policy (Westphal & Bednar, 2005).

Romantic relationships

Pluralistic ignorance can also impede the formation of romantic relationships. Consider, for example, two people who harbor romantic attractions which they have not disclosed to each other.

Both members may fear rejection from the other, and not approach them as a result. However, each member may assume that the other has not approached them because they are not interested in them.

In this case, it is mutual pluralistic ignorance, rather than actual lack of attraction, that is preventing the formation of a relationship (Vorauer & Ratner, 1993).

Pluralistic ignorance can persist even after the formation of a romantic relationship. For example, many relationships involve intense struggles and disagreements.

For example, there may be communication issues or issues related to adjusting to each other's presence when moving in with each other.

However, very few people speak of these struggles publicly unless the relationship has dissolved.

Indeed, many people on social media choose to highlight only the best moments of their relationship to the world, such as an engagement, wedding, or an especially good day on the beach.

This can culminate in the members of a relationship believing that they are especially incompetent partners, or not even suited for such a relationship in the first place.

Ultimately these beliefs, beyond the problems that are typically experienced in a relationship, may disincentivize people from contributing to the relationship (Vorauer & Ratner, 1993).

Racial Segregation

Pluralistic ignorance is thought to play a major role in the persistence of racial segregation. In the United States, for example, many blacks live in isolated, all-black communities.

This pattern of systemic housing segregation has been linked with a number of deleterious outcomes for blacks, including poverty, poor schools, and crime.

The roots of this pattern of housing segregation are complex, but pluralistic ignorance may be one important factor. Specifically, many whites may believe that other whites share a preference for living in racially homogeneous neighborhoods.

Consequently, they may assume that any black person who moves into a white neighborhood do so because they could not find adequate housing in a black neighborhood.

This assumption leads whites to blame blacks for the problems associated with living in a racially diverse neighborhood, such as crime.

As a result, whites may be less likely to support public policies that would promote racial integration, such as fair housing laws.

Climate Change

Pluralistic ignorance has been blamed for wide-ranging issues such as climate change.

In the context of climate change, pluralistic ignorance refers to the phenomenon of people underestimating the level of concern that others have about climate change.

For example, a person may think that they are more concerned about climate change than their friends and family, when in reality everyone is equally concerned.

This misperception can lead people to think that they are the only ones who care about climate change, which can discourage them from taking action.

One study found that pluralistic ignorance was associated with a number of different attitudes and behaviors related to climate change.

Specifically, people who were under the false impression that others were less concerned about climate change were more likely to:

  • Believe that climate change is not happening

  • Believe that human activity is  not the cause of climate change

  • Disagree with the scientific consensus on climate change

  • Think that climate change will not affect them personally

  • Be less likely to support policies to combat climate change

Bystander Effect

Pluralistic ignorance plays a role in many social dynamics that can ultimately cause harm.

Researchers have drawn a link between pluralistic ignorance and the failure of bystanders to intervene in emergency situations (Miller & McFarland, 1987)

The bystanders in these situations may in themselves recognize that their own inaction is driven by uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong — such as intervening inappropriately aggressively when there was no risk of danger otherwise.

Causes

Pluralistic ignorance tends to begin with widespread conformity to social norms. These are norms that govern appropriate behavior in certain contexts, such as in the classroom, at a party, in a boardroom, or in a hospital; as well as social behavior with certain people, such as friends, strangers, or colleagues.

These norms dictate, for example, that one should show public support for friends and colleagues, should not challenge others' personal choices, and should appear calm, collected, and in control at all times.

These behaviors, however, often do not reflect how people truly feel. People may disagree with the behaviors of others, or feel uncertain, envious, and fearful.

Pluralistic ignorance results when people know that their own behavior does not reflect their true sentiments, but they assume that other people are acting based on what they genuinely feel (O’Gorman, 1986).

This can have a wide range of negative consequences. Those experiencing pluralistic ignorance may see themselves as deviant in their peer group, less knowledgeable than their classmates, more uptight, less competent, or less committed.

This can leave people to feel negative about themselves and alienated from their own groups and institutions (O’Gorman, 1986).

Pluralistic ignorance can also cause policies and practices that have, in reality, have lost widespread support. For example, a corporation may persist in using an unethical or failing strategy, or governments may continue to implement unpopular foreign policies (O’Gorman, 1986).

Psychologists generally agree that pluralistic ignorance can be dispelled and alleviated through education.

For example, through learning that most of one's peers in a classroom cannot comprehend a lecture, or that the majority of students are opposed to drinking excessively, people may be more comfortable with their decisions and abilities.

Measuring Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance can be measured by asking a group of participants about their personal attitudes and beliefs on a topic, as well as asking them what they believe the average group attitude or belief on the same topic is.

Next, researchers can compile the actual group attitude by averaging all of the attitudes of the group's individual members in a sample representative of the group as a whole.

If there is pluralistic ignorance regarding some belief or behavior, the actual group attitude will differ significantly from the average group attitude reported by the participants - or the perceived norm.

A perceived norm is different from an actual norm in that it refers to what people think a norm is, rather than what it actually is (Miller & McFarland, 1987).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, May 11). Pluralistic Ignorance: Definition & Examples. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/pluralistic-ignorance.html

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