Is everyone like that, or do you just think they are?
Do you ever feel like everyone around you is into something and you’re not? Maybe you thought “If only everyone would stop doing x,y, and z, this world could be a better place!” Maybe you think everyone’s into hooking up on Tinder and relationships are dead. Or maybe you can’t see the merit in some trendy influencer, but everyone around you seems to love everything they do, so you don’t say anything. Maybe you live in a community that holds a belief that you just feel is wrong, but you don’t know how to bring it up, so you don’t.
This phenomenon is called Pluralistic Ignorance. It’s when people begin to believe a stereotype about their own social group is true, even if the experience they’re having personally might prove it to be false. It was first explored by Daniel Katz and Floyd Allport (1931) on general study populations at Syracuse University when they found that students would privately violate social norms that they thought to be true for everyone else.
Pluralistic ignorance is the reason why people might feel less than their peers. For example, it’s why some students in high school and college may think that their peers are out binge drinking, getting high, and having lots of sex even though most of them are not. According to a CDC study in 2020, less than 40% of high school teens are having sex, less than 25% have ever smoked, and less than 30% drink alcohol (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). Nonetheless, presumptions that teens are doing more of the following can contribute to teens feeling the pressure to do the same (Hines, Saris, and Throckmorton-Belzer, 2002). It’s also why so many toxic masculine stereotypes perpetuate themselves in western society, such as the idea that men can’t express their emotions or partake in predominantly-feminine pastimes (Laker & Davis, 2011). It especially happens when people are misguided by social norms perpetuated by media (Gunther & Chia, 2001). For example, think of how many Gen Z kids are actually doing certain destructive Tik Tok trends versus how many reports there are every time something goes viral.
Because of this, we often see self-esteem problems, a rise in people partaking in unhealthy or destructive behaviors, and something called the Spiral of Silence Theory, which is when the silent majority of people remain quiet about an issue while the loud minority continues to push a completely different opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). Especially due to the spiral of silence theory, pluralistic ignorance has been responsible for the continual motivation to support racial segregation. Basically, as long as people feel that their peers might feel more comfortable with it, they don’t say or do anything (O’Gorman, 1975).
So a quick thing you should probably ask yourself the next time you’re feeling left out, or you’re afraid of voicing a belief in something you feel others have abandoned. “Is that really true, or am I simply perceiving that to be true from my perspective? How many others out there are just not talking about it?”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Division of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/reports_factsheet_publications.htm#anchor_1596724918
Gunther, A. C., & Chia, S. C. Y. (2001). Predicting pluralistic ignorance: The hostile media perception and its consequences. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 78(4), 688-701.
Hines, D., Saris, R. N., & Throckmorton-Belzer, L. (2002). Pluralistic ignorance and health risk behaviors: Do college students misperceive social approval for risky behaviors on campus and in media?. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2621-2640.
Katz, D., & Allport, F. H. (1931). Students' Attitudes: A Report of the Syracuse University Study.
Laker, J. A., & Davis, T. (2011). Masculinities in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.
Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion--Our social skin. University of Chicago Press.
O'Gorman, Hubert J. (1975). "Pluralistic Ignorance and White Estimates of White Support for Racial Segregation". Public Opinion Quarterly. 39 (3): 313.