What Is Pluralistic Ignorance?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Pluralistic ignorance posits that in certain circumstances most people will falsely believe that others conform to certain ideas or standards, and will uphold them, too, while privately disagreeing with them. Since there is a fear of disagreeing with what is believed to be the norm, situations or behaviors continue that few people actually endorse. This is a social psychology concept that was first brought to attention in the 1930s by Floyd Allport and Daniel Katz. It can also be called a mistaken belief in a person’s uniqueness, which stands in the way of action or change.

Pluralistic ignorance can be seen in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler.
Pluralistic ignorance can be seen in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler.

One example of pluralistic ignorance occurs in a type of social phenomenon called the bystander effect, which has been well observed in group settings. When a person is a victim to a crime, a greater number of people observing it translates to less likelihood of anyone intervening. All share the mistaken belief that someone else will step in and help.

Due to pluralistic ignorance, individuals in self-defense classes are taught to seek help from a specific individual, rather than a group of people.
Due to pluralistic ignorance, individuals in self-defense classes are taught to seek help from a specific individual, rather than a group of people.

Even if each person deplores the crime and believes that someone should help, he or she strongly ascribes to the idea that the helper will be another individual. For this reason, in self-defense classes, people are often taught to make an appeal to a single individual to shake that person from the pluralistic view. Moreover, if several people start helping, it’s likely most of the group will begin to intervene, too.

Self-censorship is used in order to maintain cohesiveness and avoid controversy in pluralistic ignorance.
Self-censorship is used in order to maintain cohesiveness and avoid controversy in pluralistic ignorance.

Other examples of pluralistic ignorance are not difficult to find. Many Germans living during World War II privately deplored the actions of Hitler, but thought they were the only ones who did. Similarly, many white Southerners in the US detested slavery or the Jim Crow laws that followed. Since they believed their views were unique, they did not step forward to seek justice on behalf of African Americans. During the 1960s Civil Rights movement, though, many white Southerners participated with vigor because they realized numerous people shared their personal abhorrence of discrimination.

Pluralistic ignorance may allow bullying to continue on a playground or in a school.
Pluralistic ignorance may allow bullying to continue on a playground or in a school.

It could be said that pluralistic ignorance is an ironic desire to conform to a larger group. People act or fail to act based on a false idea of the values that group holds, and a belief that any differences from the group are a minority opinion. This is irony because the estimation of what the group believes is incorrect, and most members actually share an opinion in opposition to the values the group upholds.

The bystander effect is an example of pluralistic ignorance.
The bystander effect is an example of pluralistic ignorance.

Numerous social psychology researchers have studied pluralistic ignorance in different settings. It has been examined in bullying behavior, in college drinking attitudes, and in a variety of settings where ethics and values are upheld or ignored. These studies seem to suggest that pluralistic ignorance is common, and a desire to be part of the group may lead individuals and whole groups to retain norms with which they really fundamentally disagree.

College students may engage in certain behaviors in order to fit in, despite the fact they were raised to behave differently.
College students may engage in certain behaviors in order to fit in, despite the fact they were raised to behave differently.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon339670

I think I know why this phenomenon exists. We as humans are very social animals and we are instinctively driven to be part of a group and not alone. This behavior can be observed in other primates as well that share a good 95 percent-plus of the same DNA with us. It is one of the many features that primates such as apes and monkey all possess, including humans.

We are made to be with other people so that we have the support of other members to obtain food, water, and protection so we can survive in the natural wild world, which we don't live in anymore.

Because of this, we always want to be in a group, not outside of it and therefore, this ignorance emerges in an attempt to sustain participation within a group one actually disagrees with. When we see that our own opinion actually has potential to become a separate group because of other people sharing our beliefs, that is when we finally rebel against the original group that we tried so hard to be in.

This is, in its simplest form, an attempt by our bodies to survive by sustaining an environment where we get support from other humans concerning survival.

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