Have you ever been around a group of people, but you just can’t stand one of them? Maybe this is a friend of a friend, a colleague, or a family member’s new partner. They’re obnoxious, but you seem to be the only person that thinks so. Everyone else is perfectly polite to them. Out of politeness yourself, you don’t say anything about your opinion. Does this mean that everyone else loves this person that you think is obnoxious? No - the group may just be experiencing some pluralistic ignorance.
Pluralistic ignorance is, at best, funny, and at worst, dangerous. The more people are aware of it, the more they can avoid it at work, in their friend groups, and in any other social setting. Leaders especially should know how to overcome pluralistic ignorance and foster an open and honest environment where people can freely express their feelings. That person that you don’t like, that everyone else seems to tolerate? As it turns out, everyone else might think they’re obnoxious, too.
What Is Pluralistic Ignorance?
Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon in which the majority of people disagree with the minority opinion, yet they believe the minority opinion to be the majority opinion. This happens because no one speaks up against the prevailing opinion, and assumes everyone else agrees because no one is speaking up.
This usually takes place in smaller groups, like teams at work or friend groups. It can happen to people in a specific location or take place over a long period of time. Large groups, like a whole country’s worth of people, can avoid pluralistic ignorance through strategies like surveys or other anonymous means.
Examples of Pluralistic Ignorance
You may recognize some of these examples of pluralistic ignorance. They happen all the time! Unfortunately, the consequences of this phenomenon can be very serious.
Going Ahead With a Risk
Your team gets together to talk about a new content strategy for your business. The message you want to share on your social media is risky and even tiptoes the line of what is appropriate to share with consumers. In your gut, you feel like you should workshop some other options, but as you look around the room, everyone is nodding along and agreeing to move forward. You start to question yourself. Are you just being sensitive? If everyone thinks that using a certain language is “okay,” then it should be okay, right?
The team goes ahead with the content strategy and receives huge backlash. If someone had spoken up during those meetings, you could have avoided the consequences.
Bad Behavior in a Bar
Let’s say you go to a certain bar and a regular patron at the bar is a little creepy. His jokes don’t always land and he leans in a little too close to some of the female patrons as they are ordering drinks. As you and other people watch the regular’s behavior over a period of time, you can’t help but feel creeped out. But nobody says anything. As you look around and see that no one is rolling their eyes and female patrons are still coming back to the bar where this guy is sitting and ordering drinks, you wonder if you are just being judgmental. Maybe the guy is just being nice. Why else would people come back to the bar?
Little do you know, a lot of people feel uncomfortable by this regular’s behavior, but the bar is the only place in town to go out on a Friday so they tolerate him. Unfortunately, the longer his behavior remains overlooked, the more he assumes that he is behaving appropriately and tries to push the limits even further.
Pluralistic Ignorance in the Mormon Church
In the mormon subreddit, a user shared the definition of pluralistic ignorance and asked for examples related to the Mormon church. You can read the full post here. Comments include multiple examples of pluralistic ignorance in that community:
- “Very few of my peers pay a full 10% tithe (even if they declare themselves as full), but everyone thinks everyone else is paying 10%.”
- “Ok, my example is for garments. Women in Utah county all have gym memberships. Why? So they can put on their yoga pants and tank tops to "go to the gym" and then to Sodalicious and then run errands and then to lunch, and then the kids are home, and "I didn't even have time to change today!" No. You didn't want to put back on the "approved" underwear. (Obviously, I support this, but it's apparent to the rest of us who just wear regular underwear why you would do this!) It's rampant, but the virtue signaling of the capped sleeve and garment line above the knee is something EVERYONE looks for... Except in "workout" clothes. Then, you get the sportswear exemption.
- “I would agree that this is a huge aspect of the church. For example, I know many people who privately find the rules of the word of wisdom to be arbitrary and stupid. But I’ll be damned if I ever hear anyone actually vocalize these feelings in a group setting. It’s a shame because I don’t think there’s a lot of room for people to voice their opinions.”
Why Does Pluralistic Ignorance Occur?
If you’ve been in a situation like any of the ones mentioned above, you probably know the feeling of not wanting to speak up. You fear that you are the only person who feels the way you do. You don’t want to cause a scene or receive punishment for dissenting. Or, you assume that someone else will speak up if they feel the same way you do. Two phenomena in social psychology show why we feel uncomfortable speaking up, and how that discomfort can lead to a whole group assuming the wrong thing about your opinion.
The Bystander Effect
If no one in a group is assigned a task, everyone may assume that someone else will take it on. Especially if the task requires you to cause a scene or separate yourself from the rest of the group. This phenomenon, called the Bystander Effect, can have dire consequences in emergencies. Maybe you are in a group of 10 people and someone starts choking. The first thing everyone in that group does is look around to see who is going to help. All this time of observing other people is only hurting the choking victim!
Ingroup Bias and Conformity
In the earliest days of humanity, “going against the grain” was dangerous. No one wanted to separate themselves from their “tribe,” also known as the people who fed you, built your homes, or cared for you when you were sick. This mindset is still ingrained in us. We feel the urge to conform with others, even if those “others” are just people in the same room as us as we participate in a psychology experiment!
For all of these reasons, it takes a lot of bravery to go against the grain and voice what you believe is a minority opinion. It also takes confidence. If you are not confident that the people in your group will react to your dissenting opinion with respect, you may feel it’s safer for you to keep your mouth shut. Pluralistic ignorance may occur because everyone wants to protect themselves in an environment that does not actively protect the people within it.
How To Overcome Pluralistic Ignorance
Pluralistic ignorance takes place when everyone on a team, in a space, or within a group makes assumptions. Reducing assumptions and increasing communication are the two best strategies for avoiding pluralistic ignorance and creating opportunities for dissent and debate. With these strategies, you will know that your team comes to the best solution, every time.
Create an Environment Where Honesty Is Encouraged.
Let’s go back to the example with the bar. The “power dynamics” of the bar can discourage people from coming forward and calling out a regular’s bad behavior. Maybe the patrons assume that the regular is a friend of a bartender or the management. Or they assume that speaking out against the regular will get them dirty looks and weak drinks at the bar. Bars have not always been a place where it’s acceptable to call out creepy behavior, so what could the bar do to overcome those assumptions and encourage honesty?
One option is to leave signs in the women’s room encouraging them to speak out against harassment. Here are some messages you might have seen at your local bar:
- “Feeling uncomfortable? Order a Screwdriver.”
- “Call this number if you’re being harassed at the bar.”
- We do not tolerate any sexism, racism, or harassment. Bad behavior? Let us know.”
These short messages give patrons the opportunity to speak up, be honest, and express their opinion. It may not be the opinion of other people in the bar, but at least the conversation is happening.
Note that this initial responsibility - signs or other forms of communication - is on the employees and management of the space. Managers should train bartenders to communicate with patrons about the importance of being honest and expressing their concerns. Every staff member has a duty to create and foster a safe environment.
Check In With Your “Team.”
Sometimes, directly asking your team to express dissent will encourage them to do it. Let’s say you’re at a meeting and you’re about to decide on a content strategy for the next quarter. Before everything is confirmed and the decision is made, you ask your team for reasons why the strategy won’t work. You encourage the team to be creative in your responses and let them know that their concerns won’t be judged. This communicates a need for minority opinions, and those opinions are likely to come out.
Of course, one-off requests for minority opinions may not result in those opinions being shared if the overall environment discourages dissent or debate. As a team leader, you should always look for ways to encourage honesty. Maybe it’s easier for your team if you ask for their concerns over email or an anonymous survey. What’s important is that all team members feel safe in sharing how they feel, even when it “goes against the grain.”
How can you let team members know their concerns are welcomed? Reward them! Offer them praise when they express valid concerns (politely, of course,) or give promotions and responsibilities to the team members who aren’t afraid to express their opinion. Soon, other members will catch on. They’ll be more open and honest, too!