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Pluralistic ignorance refers to the social phenomenon in which individuals guess wrongly about a group’s beliefs and values. Learn more about pluralistic ignorance through examples and then test your knowledge with a quiz in this lesson.

Defining Pluralistic Ignorance

Suppose that you were at a movie theatre with a group of friends. Maggie, one of your friends, drops her bucket of popcorn on the floor and leaves it there. She also throws all her candy wrappers on the floor, not caring that she is making a mess. You are a firm believer in recycling and cleaning up your own messes, and you detest people who go out of their way to create messes for other people to clean up just because they can.You want to say something to Maggie about her behavior.

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You look around and notice that none of your friends are concerned with Maggie’s uncleanliness. In fact, no one has so much as glanced at the floor to look at the mess she made. It’s as if they’re all comfortable with Maggie’s behavior. Afraid of being made fun of by your friends for speaking up, you decide not to say anything. What you don’t know is that most of your friends agree with you and were just afraid to be the first one to speak up.

This is an example of pluralistic ignorance.So, what exactly is pluralistic ignorance? It’s a term that was created by Floyd H. Allport and Daniel Katz in the 1930s, describing a situation where individual members of a group have a value or belief that differs from what they believe the values or beliefs of the rest of the group to be. This misconception of others’ values causes the group members to act in ways that differ from what they believe in. Pluralistic ignorance is a systematic error in our estimation of the beliefs of other people. We guess at the group members’ beliefs and norms based upon our observations, and our guess is wrong.

When you looked around at your friends, you saw that they were not speaking and avoiding looking at the floor. You did not consider that they were behaving this way because Maggie’s unclean behavior made them so disgusted that they couldn’t even look at the floor. You interpreted it as them accepting and agreeing with Maggie’s behavior, when it was the exact opposite.In this example, you and the rest of your friends disagreed with Maggie’s behavior. However, none of you spoke up because you all thought that the rest of the group was okay with it. The fact was that none of you agreed with Maggie’s behavior. Had just one person spoken up, the pluralistic ignorance would have been resolved.

Examples of Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance can easily be conquered if just one person speaks up about their values or norms. Yet, in these situations, people choose to sacrifice their norms for the sake of agreeing with the group. So, why don’t we speak up in these situations? Reasons include:

  • Fear of being abandoned or isolated from other group members
  • Wanting to blend in or appear to be just another group member
  • Need to belong
  • Not wanting to be seen as weird or made fun of
  • Fear of the group’s rejection of your value

Several examples of pluralistic ignorance have been found in prior research studies. Researchers Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller conducted a study on student alcohol consumption at Princeton University. Prentice and Miller found that although many of the students reported that they did not agree with the level of campus alcohol consumption, they felt that the other college students had more favorable opinions on campus alcohol consumption. These students reported that they engaged in campus alcohol consumption because they were afraid of being rejected by their peers or being isolated from other students.A research study conducted by Tracy Lambert, Arnold Kahn, and Kevin Apple found that men and women who are not comfortable with casual sexual encounters believe that other men and women are more comfortable doing so than they are.

Both men and women overestimated the level of comfort that their same-sexed peers have with these casual encounters.

Lesson Summary

Pluralistic ignorance is a social phenomenon first described by Floyd H. Allport and Daniel Katz in 1931. Pluralistic ignorance occurs when we assume that the beliefs or norms of a group differ from our own beliefs or norms, when this is in fact not true.

An example of pluralistic ignorance includes not speaking up when a friend cheats on his math test because you incorrectly think that the rest of your friends believe cheating is okay, even though you personally believe that cheating is wrong.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished with this lesson, you will have the ability to:

  • Describe pluralistic ignorance
  • Summarize research on pluralistic ignorance
  • Explain examples of pluralistic ignorance

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