Pluralistic Ignorance: You’re Not as Alone as You Think You Are

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

— George S. Patton

Imagine you’re in a meeting with a lot of important people. The boss comes in, takes a seat, and starts talking “strategic market knowledge” this and “leveraging competitive advantages” that.

But to you, it all sounds like gibberish.

For a second you wonder if you’re in the right meeting. Surely someone else must feel as confused as you?

So you take a quick sanity check. You look around the room at your colleagues and … what??

They are paying attention and nodding their head in total agreement? How can this be?

They must know something you don’t know.

You quickly determine the best option is to keep your mouth shut and say nothing, hiding what you think is your own ignorance. While this might be a wise career move, it makes for a pretty dull life.

This is pluralistic ignorance, a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. The term was coined in 1932 by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Allport and describes the common group situation where we privately believe one thing, but feel everyone else in the group believes something else.

In the case above, pluralistic ignorance means that rather than interrupting the meeting to ask for a clarification, we’ll sit tight and nod like everyone else.

It’s a real life version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the fairy tale where everyone pretends the king is wearing clothes until a child points out the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

In this short video, Dan Ariely, explains and demonstrates pluralistic ignorance better than I can. Make sure you watch the whole thing, the kicker is at the end.

Basically we look toward others for cues about how to act when we really should take a page out of Richard Feynman’s book: What Do You Care What Other People Think?