Pluralistic ignorance: when you believe in a false majority opinion

Often times when we are in a group we tend to think like most of its members, just because we are not “out of tune”. However, sometimes it happens to other members of the group, who privately think like us but in public buy into what most think.

This is pluralistic ignorance, A phenomenon of social psychology that can appear in the face of opinions, beliefs, respect for rules … It also has a lot to do with the behavior of offering help in emergency situations (the so-called “Spectator effect”), which we will also see in detail throughout the article.

    Pluralistic ignorance: what is it?

    Pluralistic ignorance is a concept of social psychology. This term was born in 1931, from the hand of Daniel Katz and Flyod H. Allport.

    These authors have defined the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance as tendency of people not to express their position or point of view on an issue because that position goes against what most people think within a collective; thus, faced with an almost majority belief in a group, the person who thinks differently feels in the minority and therefore does not share his true opinion.

    Moreover, this person (mistakenly) believes that others think differently from him, whereas many times what happens is that many members of the group also do not dare to express their true opinion, because they are as diverse as those in the group. majority.

    So, according to pluralistic ignorance, people often hide what we really think about a problem, because we believe other people think differently. In other words, following the idea of ​​this phenomenon, there is a tendency in humans to be in tune with others (Whether in beliefs, thoughts, behaviors …); the fear of not being it generates this pluralistic ignorance (with regard to the expression of opinions).


    Thus, when the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance arises, people attribute (often wrongly) a majority attitude in the group, when in reality their members, in private, express a different opinion to respect.

    In other words, what we express or think in front of the group is not the same as what we express in private, with specific members of the group. however, we tend to believe that what people in a group think is what they really think, Especially if their opinion is shared by most of its members.

    Why this denomination: “pluralist ignorance”? Precisely why we commented: as a group, all members can share a vision of reality (plural); this point of view is false, but the fact of sharing it allows real attitudes and behaviors shared in private among its members to continue to exist.

      Spectator effect: relationship to pluralist ignorance

      On the other hand, pluralistic ignorance also has to do with another phenomenon of social psychology: the spectator effect.

      The spectator effect is a phenomenon that appears in response to behaviors of need or request for help: It’s that “the more viewers there are, in a situation that forces us to offer our help, the less likely we are to offer help, and the more time it takes for the person who needs it to receive it “.

      In other words, the spectator effect inhibits people’s altruistic response. This is due to three phenomena, among which pluralistic ignorance, and which are:

      • Dissemination of responsibility
      • Pluralistic ignorance
      • Apprehension about the evaluation

      To illustrate, let’s take an example. Imagine that we are in the subway and we see a man hitting his partner. There are many of us in the metro. What can happen? That we don’t offer help to that person, because we subconsciously think “someone else is going to help”.

      This is the effect of the spectator; if in addition there are a lot of people in the metro, this omission of help on our part is easier to give, and it will take longer until the person receives help (if they finally receives it).

      Process before assisting behavior

      To understand it better, let’s take a step-by-step look at what is happening in the spectator effect and what the three phenomena we have mentioned to explain it mean.

      Like the example (although many others can serve): there is a man beating his partner in the subway, in front of other travelers. The processes before helping to lead and leading us to the final decision to help the victim or notThese are:

      1. Pay attention

      The first thing we do is pay attention to the situation because “something is wrong”. Here the time pressure begins to apply: if we do not act, the situation can get worse.

      2. Pluralistic ignorance

      The second thing that happens is we ask ourselves: is this an emergency? Here the clarity or ambiguity of the situation exerts its power; if the situation is ambiguous, we may have doubts as to whether the situation is an emergency or not.

      Pluralistic ignorance then appears: we think “maybe if no one from the metro offers help, it’s because the situation is not an emergency” (bad thought).

      Another thought we may have that explains pluralistic ignorance is, “I interpret the situation as an emergency, but others ignore it; therefore, I join ignorance ”. So we still don’t help.

      3. Dissemination of responsibility

      This is when the third step or process preceding the helping behavior emerges: we ask ourselves: “Do I have responsibilities?

      Then comes the spread of responsibility, another phenomenon in social psychology, which explains the tendency to reduce responsibility in a situation, when the group of people observing it is large, and when we have not been offered explicit responsibility. of the same.

      This translates, unconsciously, in what we escape our responsibility in the situation, And we attribute it to others: “let others act”.

      4. Learning through assessment

      In the fourth stage of the spectator effect, apprehension in the evaluation appears. We ask ourselves: “Can I help?”

      This answer is influenced by the knowledge we have on the subject (For example, our physical strength, our ability to negotiate or assert ourselves …) and anxiety about the evaluation that others may make of our behavior.

      That is, and although it seems paradoxical, in a way we fear “to be judged for their help” or “to be judged for the way we help”. As a result of this process, the following appears.

      5. Cost-reward balance

      In the last process, which brings us to the final answer of whether or not we are helping the victim (we ask ourselves, “Am I helping?”), we take stock of the costs and benefits of victim rescue.

      This stage is influenced by a series of elements, which increase the probability that we will help: empathy for the victim, proximity to her, the gravity of the situation, its duration … As a result of all these processes, we finally decided whether to help or not.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Hogg, M. (2010). Social psychology. Vaughan Graham M. Panamericana. Posted by Panamericana.
      • Krech, David and Richard S. Crutchfield. (1948). Theory and problems of social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
      • Morales, JF (2007). Social psychology. Published by SA McGraw-Hill / Interamericana de España.
      • Ugarte, I., De Lucas, J., Rodríguez, B., Pau, PM and Rovira, D. (1998). Pluralistic ignorance, causal attribution and cognitive bias in the case. Journal of Social Psychology, 13 (2): 321-330.

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