Pluralistic Ignorance – Why you won’t raise your hand in the classroom

Updated on 8th March, 2023

Pluralistic Ignorance Definition

Pluralistic Ignorance is a complex effect to define. Social psychology defines it as a cognitive fallacy whereby a person's psychological state is influenced by their belief that their private thoughts, attitudes, and feelings are different from everybody else's. In simple terms, Pluralistic Ignorance is when everybody thinks that their thoughts and values are different from the perceived thoughts of the majority.

However, the problem is that everybody can feel the same way, leading to a public cognitive distortion, hence the term "Pluralistic." For example, have you ever been in a classroom where the teacher talks through 20 minutes of incomprehensible information and pauses for a moment to ask if anyone has any questions?

You look around the class and see that absolutely no one raises their hand, leading you to believe that you are the only one in the class who does not understand anything.

Everyone feels confused at some point in the classroom
Everyone feels confused at some point in the classroom

Although you were initially going to ask some questions to the teacher, you refrain from doing so because you don't want to be seen as the only one that has not understood the lesson. However, one thing you fail to realize is that everybody in the classroom has just gone through the exact same dilemma as you. In this case, the entire class is going through a spell of Pluralistic Ignorance because everybody within it feels the same way.

Yet, they conform to the false belief that the content was collectively understood. Moreover, if you have been in this situation before, you would remember that all it took was for someone to raise their lack of understanding on the topic leading to a general sense of relief and agreement in the class. What is the takeaway from this, you may ask? If you feel alone and isolated in the way you think, the people around you probably mirror the same things as you in their minds.

What is Pluralistic Ignorance?

Pluralistic Ignorance is an example of how humans tend to behave in large groups, which is why it has been extensively studied in fields such as social psychology. As a concept, it has many overlaps with another psychological effect called the Bystander Effect, which is when people fail to intervene during times of emergency that demand action from others.

To briefly define it, the Bystander Effect is the inhibiting influence of large groups of people on a person's willingness to help others in need. Pluralistic Ignorance comes into play in this context when individuals from a group understand that their lack of action is detrimental to the situation. Still, because no one around them is acting either, they come to the false conclusion that the situation is not an emergency that requires their own personal intervention.

Does the crowd influence you?
Does the crowd influence you?

Pluralistic Ignorance also has strong ties with social norms and expectations of behavior. In many contexts, whether professional or social ones, there may be expectations for people to remain positive, act professionally, and appear calm, collected, and in control at all times. However, these expectations often do not reflect how individuals actually feel at times, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and isolation.

However, they still choose to act according to the accepted norms. This is how Pluralistic Ignorance arises because people continue to behave in a socially acceptable way. After all, they think they are alone in how they feel, and they don't want to act in a way that reflects their true feelings out of fear of being rejected by others.

Behaving in a socially acceptable way
Behaving in a socially acceptable way

The way to fight Pluralistic Ignorance is simple, but doing it is also very challenging because it means going against the crowd. Next time you feel psychological pressure from a social group, remember that others may be under the spell of Pluralistic Ignorance and scared to voice their thoughts and emotions. Understand that this psychological pressure is self-inflicted; in reality, you have nothing to fear, so act how you feel.

History of Pluralistic Ignorance

The term Pluralistic Ignorance was first coined by social psychologists Floyd Allport (1890-1979) and Daniel Katz (1903-1998) in 1931. The phenomenon emerged during Allport's primary investigations into "the illusion of universality of opinions" (a mouthful, right?). Similar to Pluralistic Ignorance, the illusion of universality of opinions refers to the tendency of others to falsely believe that everybody in a given social group has the same personal opinions as themselves.

During their famous experiment in 1931, Allport and Katz observed instances of Pluralistic Ignorance when they assessed their students' reactions to being asked to share their dormitories and fraternities with minority students. What they found was that students would rarely object to this in a public group but would state worrying concerns in private settings. In this experiment, Allport and Katz found that social groups can influence public behavior despite group members having significantly incongruent attitudes about a topic.

After this discovery, multiple psychologists attempted to see if they could replicate these effects as it would have profound ramifications on understanding human social behavior. For example, one study conducted by Richard Shanck (1902-1963) investigated the private and public attitudes of an isolated village with a strong religious presence. Similar to Allport and Katz, Shanck found out that there was a distinct difference between the villagers' private and public attitudes, thus displaying high Pluralistic Ignorance.

Allport and Katz observed instances of Pluralistic Ignorance when they assessed their students' reactions
Allport and Katz observed instances of Pluralistic Ignorance when they assessed their students' reactions

Case Examples of Pluralistic Ignorance

Case 1: Many people associate university with partying, drinking, and socializing as much as they do with learning course material. This may be due to the university culture being fueled by countless movies such as Project X and American Pie (i.e., university party movies). As a result, drinking at university has become somewhat of a social norm and is widely accepted as something you just do. Considering this, do you think these social expectations could influence university students to become pluralistically ignorant? If you thought yes, then you are right!

In 1992, psychologists Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller undertook some experiments[6] to examine the link between university students' personal attitudes toward alcohol consumption and their perception of their peers' attitudes and feelings. Unsurprisingly, the experiments unearthed that many students personally viewed alcohol consumption to be extremely excessive on campus but thought that their peers were highly supportive of it, leading to their displayed support of it too. However, the experiments found that the propensity to conform to these behaviors was more frequent in men than women, which is another interesting point to consider.

Popular movies influence university students to drink
Popular movies influence university students to drink

Case 2: In a book titled "Ideology and Propaganda," author Hannah Arendt explores how Pluralistic Ignorance can be used to manipulate large groups of people in rather ridiculous contexts. Within this book, Arendt cites the 1837 fable "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837), which talks about how an Emperor's vanity cost him his dignity. Here, two cunning tailors offer to procure a magical suit that could only be seen by the eyes of worthy individuals. Upon hearing this, the Emperor accepts the offer but finds that he cannot see anything when the promised suit arrives. Funnily enough, neither can his advisors, generals, or courtiers see anything. In order to not publicly be exposed as an unworthy individual, no one spoke a word, and the Emperor and his court decided to parade through the city streets.

During the parade, many people join to see if they are worthy too, but much to their dismay, nobody sees any clothing on the Emperor. It is only when a child points his finger and jokes to his father that the Emperor is naked that the charade is broken, and people realize that the suits never existed at all. Although this is a funny example of Pluralistic Ignorance, Arendt reminds us that this effect can be used by influential people who may have nefarious intentions of controlling us all. In the fable of the Emperor, everyone believes they are the only ones that could not see the suit when it was, in fact, the collective whole. What happens when the individual believes the collective whole agrees with other fraudulent ideas? More importantly, will the individual themselves conform to others' behaviors? Well, according to this effect, they are.

The fable
The fable "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837)

Case 3: Have you ever stopped yourself from expressing your feelings to someone because you thought they would see things differently than you? You may have suffered from a painful case of mutual Pluralistic Ignorance. Research has found that Pluralistic Ignorance could also be a significant obstacle in forming romantic relationships. Consider this: Two members possess strong romantic feelings for one another, but they do not disclose it because they both harbor an equally strong fear of rejection. As a result, neither individual dares approach the other nor disclose their feelings, leading to them assuming that the other is not interested because they have said nothing.

Unfortunately, it is not the lack of feelings that is the problem here but rather the presence of Pluralistic Ignorance. Pluralistic Ignorance can also happen during romantic relationships, as all relationships involve certain periods of hardship and disagreement. In addition, many couples on social media will choose to highlight the good aspects of their relationship while completely hiding the negative side of things. Others must beware of this as only seeing the superficially procured side of relationships leads to instances of Pluralistic Ignorance where they feel highly incompetent as a partner compared to what they see online.

A Beautiful Quote

“We'd just done the opposite of what we wanted to do.”

- Jerry Harvey

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