To Sing Another Song

Monday morning, you heard that a group case presentation is due the following week. Your team leader proposed that a “made-up” case be submitted. Deep inside, you know that cheating is bad and that it entails a serious offense. When it was time to ask whether there are objections, no one dared to speak. You were silenced by the fact that everyone seems to agree with the plan. Now you are in a dilemma and started asking yourself, “Will I reject the proposal and suggest a legal plan? Or should I continue to keep quiet and agree to it? Anyways, they all seem to like the idea of doing dishonest work.”

Most of us would choose not to deviate from the [perceived] norm even if it will cause us to give up our personal values. Some people make the mistake of equating public behavior with the social norm thus misleading them with the idea that the majority is right.. or that the majority is not in accord with their idea. Instead of choosing what they think is right, they let themselves be driven by the “perceived” choices of the majority and become victims of pluralistic ignorance.

Pluralistic ignorance is a term introduced by Floyd Allport to describe a situation in which members of a group privately reject group norms, but publicly accept them.

Miller and McFarland (1991) described it as a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private attitudes and judgments are different from those of others, even though one’s public behavior is identical.

Victims of pluralistic ignorance may respond to the perceived differences between their private attitudes and the social norm through three identified strategies: they can (1) move their private attitudes closer to the [perceived] norm, (2) bring the norm closer to their attitudes, or (3) reject the group altogether. The last two options seem to be too challenging and so most people tend to eliminate the discrepancy by changing their private attitudes.

In the situation described above, it is possible that one or more members among the group may have been going through the same ordeal of trashing the idea of cheating. The team leader asking whether there are objections failed to elicit a response even though there is indeed an objection to the plan. A member’s inaction is driven by pluralistic ignorance where he failed to address his concerns for fear of offending the leader and interpreted the other members’ identical behavior as an indication that everyone agrees to the plan.

Pluralistic ignorance poses various social and psychological consequences. One of its serious consequences is the actual deviation from what is morally right in exchange for belongingness and short-lived harmony.

A situation may lead to pluralistic ignorance when a false façade is interpreted as the truth or when individuals believe that the public actions of others are a truthful representation of their private beliefs. One way to avoid this kind of situation is for us to learn to voice out our concerns and opinions. This may not be easy, as standing by your principles may require a lot of courage. However, personal values and moral truths should not be sacrificed in times when we just don’t want to “look stupid”.

The lesson we need to learn here is that we need to practice living life with dignity for life is too valuable to waste on ignorant conformity.


Prentice, Deborah A. and Dale T. Miller. 1993. Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. Vol. 64, No. 2, 243-256.

Wardwell, Brian. 1999. The Effects of the Outdoor Action Frosh Trip on Freshmen’s Adaptation to Princeton University: A Study of
Pluralistic Ignorance. Unpublished Thesis. Princeton University.

Read about SELECTIVE PERCEPTION at The Simple Mind Blog


Ed said...

Pluralistic Ignorance: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Mastermind, you are a voice from Heaven, crying in the wilderness.