Have you ever been befuddled in a classroom or a business meeting, and when the person running the show asks, “Okay, raise your hand if you don’t understand,” you pass on the opportunity to clear up your confusion? Why do you do that?
When a person asks a question this way - say, a professor in an algebra course - she is unwittingly conjuring up a psychological phenomenon that has diverted the lives of millions going back to the first humans. You are probably familiar with what follows the moment an instructor asks, “Show of hands, who is confused?” You usually pause for three seconds, frantically dart your eyes around the room, and decide you must be the only person who has no idea what is going on and then decide to keep your hand right where it is. After a few more seconds, the teacher says, “Okay, great. Moving on...”
If you could have moved into the minds of your classmates, you would have seen that most of them also had no clue, and that they, too, waited to see if they were alone and then did nothing. In a situation like this, a wave of insecure uncertainty passes through the collective, with all persons wondering if they are alone in their confusion. Each person then refuses to act because she fears the hundred-eye gaze of disrespect that might turn toward her. The result is a totally inaccurate view of reality in which everyone thinks she knows what the majority is thinking, and each person believes she is in the mental minority. In the end, the ignorance is telepathically transferred to the teacher, who moves on to new material thinking her classroom is particularly sharp and her technique brilliant. The topics of the day may have been clarified for you, and your grade might have improved because of it, if not for a nasty little booger called pluralistic ignorance.
In every new situation, you innately seek out and follow norms like spilled water seeking its level, because doing so is likely an adaptive response built into the primate brain. A person who faces the entire universe alone rarely prospers for long. Fears of embarrassment and ostracism, and the pleasure of belonging and feeling acceptance, are always pushing and pulling on your behavior. Knowing this deep down, you instinctively work to ingratiate yourself with a group, and groups work off norms. Conforming to those norms and other group expectations keeps social creatures such as you alive. The only problem with this strategy is that you are really, really bad at understanding other people, much less the intricate topography of group dynamics.
You’ve likely noticed over the years that people often tend to adhere to norms of behavior they internally don’t agree with. When you display an attitude that matches the attitude of the majority, even though you disagree with the implications of that attitude, you might be in what psychologists call a state of pluralistic ignorance - a state, by definition, shared by many others. Pluralistic ignorance is the erroneous belief that the majority is acting in a way that matches its internal philosophies, and that you are one of a small number of people who feel differently, when in reality the majority agrees with you on the inside but is afraid to admit it outright or imply such through its behavior. The problem is that you play it safe and adhere to the norms, but the norms are just beliefs themselves. You get tangled up like a cat in yarn. You get stuck in a logic spiral in which the thing that everyone calls a norm is actually just what the majority believes is the norm. Confused? Let’s proceed to some examples so you can be less dumb.
In the early 1990s, Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller attempted to provide answers to some of the looming questions concerning norms in sociology and psychology. If it is generally accepted that you usually conform publicly to the norms of your culture, then how did you figure out what those norms were in the first place? What makes you feel like you have accurately identified the norms that will provide you with social acceptance?
In a study published in 1993, Prentice and Miller gathered students at Princeton University and had them fill out surveys about alcohol consumption. Binge drinking and the overall culture of drunken revelry on college campuses was a topic much debated across the country at the time, and Princeton was one of the college campuses soaked deepest in the sauce. They wrote in their study that reunions at the school at that time held the record for the second-highest level of alcohol consumption of any event in the United States other than the Indianapolis 500. So the scientists believed it would be a great place to study a norm, because the culture of excessive drinking would be something new batches of incoming freshmen would have to face year after year.
In the first survey of the campus, they asked students two questions: how comfortable are you with the culture of alcohol consumption at Princeton, and how comfortable with this culture is the average student? In that initial study, sure enough, the results came back strongly suggesting that a veil of pluralistic ignorance rested on the heads of the students of Princeton. The majority of the students reported that privately they were much less comfortable with the drinking habits on campus than the majority of students. Prentice and Miller speculated that students tended to see their friends drinking way too much at social gatherings, and those students then assumed that their peers must be enjoying themselves. Therefore, their friends obviously endorsed the attitude of the majority. The truth, though, was that the students were observing their friends acting comfortable in public with a norm they privately rejected. So, both in small groups and on the campus at large, the norm reinforced itself even though most people disagreed with it.
Prentice and Miller also studied the 1991 Princeton keg ban instituted as an attempt to both curb binge drinking and improve the school’s image. Like any great symbolic gesture, the ban on beer kegs divided the culture. In interviews and editorials, students and alumni announced their hatred of the keg ban, and protests formed. Prentice and Miller had a hunch that the people making the most fuss were a small subset of the total population. The scientists wondered how a small yet loud portion of the population would affect the students. Just as before, they found that the majority of students said they they didn’t hate the keg ban like most others did, but when asked if they were likely to attend future reunions, the more a student felt deviant from the presumed norms of the majority, the less attractive the reunions became to him. The zealotry to which they felt opposed was an illusion. The students felt estranged even though their feelings were actually in line with those of the majority of their peers. A noisy minority convinced the majority that the majority was the minority.
Prentice and Miller’s evidence suggests you can’t be sure whether the norms in your culture, subculture, era, or group of friends are real or imagined. The landscape of any social situation is so treacherous that, as they put it, “estimates of the norm are often seriously in error.” The result, they said, can be the perpetuation of a norm that no one in fact supports.
The side effects of this tendency for groups to get reality completely backward can be enormously influential on the course of history. Some studies suggest far-reaching norms like racial segregation persist past the point when most people would like them to go away because of a false belief in a majority that still supports the idea. When a norm is dying, right as it moves into the phase in which most people no longer support it, it can cling to life for a painfully long time. The majority-held belief that opinion has yet to shift slows down the process of ending most norms right at the point when killing them would accepted by most of the public. When commenting on their research into 1950s and ‘60s segregation norms, sociologists Hubert J. O’Gorman and Stephen L. Garry said people often “unintentionally serve as cultural carriers of cognitive error.” Pluralistic ignorance keeps people on the fringe, the sort of people who will be phased out by progress, clinging to their outdated beliefs for longer than they should. It keeps their opponents feeling less supported than they truly are while keeping people in the middle favoring the status quo. In the end, a make-believe status quo changes the way everyone acts and thinks. This leads to what anthropologists Warren Breed and Thomas Ktsanes call a “conservative bias,” in the traditional sense of the word, not the modern political sense. Thinking through that bias, most people falsely assume their culture is less progressively tilted than it truly is, and thus the institutions and media of the culture will present themselves as more conservative than necessary. In addition, its programming will consist of content designed to appeal to a public far more prudish than the actual audience consuming it.
So, how can you overcome the negative effects of this common psychological phenomenon? Prentice and Miller, the scientists who studied alcohol norms at Princeton, said in their study that wide-net awareness campaigns were the wrong approach to pushing for social change. They said informative public service announcements and consciousness-raising initiatives may be excellent tools for changing private attitudes, but thanks to pluralistic ignorance, those sorts of message-saturation, top-of-mind media-jamming projects are impotent against the perception that the majority still supports the norm in question. Their suggestion? Encourage individuals to speak out and reveal their private thoughts. At the time, they proposed support groups and similar gatherings to help spread the word that you are not alone. Those suggestions, however, were pre-internet. Maybe support groups were the old way and the psychedelic mishmash of every human thought palace, belief system, obsession, bend, and fetish on the internet is the new way. How do you squash pluralistic ignorance today? Get online, ask if you are alone. When you figure out the true majority opinion, let people know.
You can try to do as the Romans do, but remember that the Romans are doing what they think the Romans do, but not even Romans know what the Romans truly believe. Public discourse is the path to being less dumb. The only way out of the loop is to speak up, ask questions, and get a conversation going about what people truly think. Are you a grown man who loves My Little Pony? My friend, you’re a Google search away from discovering millions of other Bronies like you. No matter your private, mistakenly deviant ways, you can find your tribe somewhere online, and they probably meet for breakfast once a month.
This excerpt is an edited (to be made much shorter) and slightly altered chapter excerpted from the book, “You Are Now Less Dumb.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © David McRaney, 2013.
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• ———. “Pluralistic Ignorance and White Estimates of White Support for Racial Segregation.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 39, no. 3 (1975): 313– 30.
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