Pluralistic ignorance

In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but important fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too. Especially in an ambiguous situation, the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance.” A thorough understanding of the pluralistic ignorance phenomenon helps immeasurably to explain a regular occurrence in our country that has been termed both a riddle and a national disgrace: the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.

Robert Ciadini in Influence describes pluralistic ignorance as one of the mechanisms that underlies social proof. In an unfamiliar situation, people look to other people for guidance. If no one acts nothing happens because people assume that the correct course of action is to not to do anything. Whereas, in the same situation an individual on her own would be far more likely to act.

To illustrate pluralistic ignorance—and the way it can be engineered—Cialdini gives the example of the Jonestown suicides. He makes a convincing case that the mass suicides wouldn’t have happened if the People’s Temple hadn’t moved to Guyana.

To my mind, the single act in the history of the People’s Temple that most contributed to the members’ mindless compliance that day occurred a year earlier with the relocation of the Temple to a jungled country of unfamiliar customs and strange people. If we are to believe the stories of Jim Jones’s malevolent genius, he realized fully the massive psychological impact such a move would have on his followers. All at once, they found themselves in a place they knew nothing about. South America, and the rain forests of Guyana, especially, were unlike anything they had experienced in San Francisco. The country—both physical and social—into which they were dropped must have seemed dreadfully uncertain.

Cialdini also offers some advice on how to overcome the effects of pluralistic ignorance:

An automatic-pilot device, like social proof, should never be trusted fully; even when no saboteur has fed bad information into the mechanism, it can sometimes go haywire by itself. We need to check the machine from time to time to be sure that it hasn’t worked itself out of sync with the other sources of evidence in the situation—the objective facts, our prior experiences, our own judgments. Fortunately, this precaution requires neither much effort nor much time. A quick glance around is all that is needed. And this little precaution is well worth it.