Pluralistic Ignorance

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” — George S. Patton.

I bet you live this almost everyday.

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

To you, it all sounds like gibberish. For a second you think you’re in the wrong meeting. Surely someone else must feel equally confused??

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. A wise career move perhaps, but 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 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.

Dan Ariely, in this short video, 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?