As human beings, we are powerfully influenced by social norms—or, to be more precise, we’re influenced by what we perceive social norms to be. But what if we’re wrong about other people’s beliefs?
Such an error can easily happen. Since we infer social norms from people’s public behavior—and since it’s easy to mistake what behavior signifies—we can err. This is pluralistic ignorance: You believe your attitudes and judgments are different from those of the people around you, but you’re wrong. You think you feel differently from everyone else, but everyone else is thinking the same thing.
The classic example of pluralistic ignorance is the bystander effect—when a number of people all witness an emergency situation like a mugging or attack, but no one does anything about it. Contrary to popular belief, the bystander effect occurs not due to apathy, but because of pluralistic ignorance. A natural response to an emergency is to try not to panic. But this creates an unusual danger: In trying to look poised, bystanders inadvertently give off cues that send the message, “There is no need for action.” We look to others for cues on how to behave, but in an ambiguous situation—like one that may or may not be a real emergency—others are also looking to you. Seeing that no one else is doing anything, everyone just stands there doing nothing.
Studies suggest that pluralistic ignorance may also contribute to certain unhealthy behaviors, such as binge drinking, when we perceive that others want to engage in the behavior more than they actually do. One of the strongest predictors of alcohol use is peer influence. In one study, researchers at Princeton University administered a questionnaire asking students about (1) their own level of comfort with the drinking habits of Princeton students, and (2) the level of comfort they perceived that others had.
The study found that students incorrectly believed that other people were more comfortable with drinking than they were. They also found that male students were more comfortable with drinking at the end of the semester than at the beginning, suggesting that they may have adjusted their attitudes and behaviors in order to match what they perceived the norm to be.
Dispelling collective ignorance can serve to increase healthy behaviors, the researchers found. In another study in the same series, the researchers divided students into two groups. One group participated in a discussion about alcohol use on campus, talking about strategies for making responsible decisions about drinking. The other group participated in the same discussion, but was also informed about the discrepancy between their perception of the attitudes of others and the reality.
Researchers found that dispelling students’ pluralistic ignorance had a dramatic effect on their alcohol consumption: Students who’d been informed about the true attitudes of other students drank much less than did the control, because they felt less social pressure to drink in excess.
Of course, inaction can often be more dangerous than action—as when a person is depressed or anxious but fails to seek the help they need—and pluralistic ignorance may be responsible for why so few people seek mental health services. A study of police officers showed that they perceived a high degree of social stigma associated with seeing mental health services, a belief that predicted they wouldn’t do so. The study also found that individual officers believed their peers were less willing to seek mental health services than they actually were. Their mistaken belief that their attitudes were different from the norm may have caused them to feel shame about seeking help.
Promoting open discussions about mental health services—and highlighting the way we tend to overperceive the stigma—could inspire people to get help when they need it, the authors conclude. The solution to pluralistic ignorance, it seems, is communication.
1. Rendsvig, R.K. (2014). Pluralistic ignorance in the bystander effect: informational dynamics of unresponsive witnesses in situations calling for intervention. Synthese, 191, 2471–2498.
2. Prentice, D.A., & Miller, D.T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256.
3. Karaffa, K.M., & Koch, J.M. (2016). Stigma, pluralistic ignorance, and attitudes toward seeking mental health services among police officers. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43, 759–777.