Pluralistic Ignorance and Diffusion of Responsibility

The term “pluralistic ignorance” was coined by American social psychologists Floyd Allport and Daniel Katz to describe the situation in which almost all members of a group privately reject certain group norms but publicly support them with the erroneous assumption that the other group members accept these norms. It is a social phenomenon in which “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes” .

This socio-psychological phenomenon thus describes the systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs on the one side and public behaviour by them on the other side.

Take the scenario when we are out with a group of friends, when one of our friends behaves in a way that we personally disapprove and would like to admonish. While we contemplate expressing our displeasure, we suddenly notice that everybody else in the group seems to be not that worried about this behaviour. We then decide to keep quiet and not to do anything. What we fail to realize is that all our friends are also equally unhappy with the behaviour, but just like us, they also keep quiet thinking the same way like us.

While pluralistic ignorance is unhealthy and avoidable many such situations are fortunately quite fragile. All it takes to remove the negative effects of pluralistic ignorance in such situations is for just one person to openly share his or her personal belief and immediately the group dissolves the ignorance.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, two swindlers sell imaginary clothes to the emperor and assert that those who cannot see these clothes are either unfit for their posts or unusually stupid. As no one raises any doubts on the claim, everybody in the town, despite clearly seeing that the emperor is not wearing any clothes comes to believe that he/she alone is not able to see the clothes and plays along with the majority. It takes a little boy from the crowd to reveal the truth when he cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all when the whole town realizes the mistake.

In most of the cases of sexual harassment of women the same pluralistic ignorance makes the affected woman believe that she alone is feeling the harassment as other women that she knows, who are encountering similar harassments do not appear to show any discomfort or may have valid reasons for keeping quiet about it. This explains why even though sexual harassment is rampant and very stressful and many a times quite traumatic, there is very little reporting of such cases.

The unfortunate consequences of pluralistic ignorance can be seen in class rooms where students do not raise their doubts even when they are asked by the teacher since they believe that other students by their silence appear to have fully understood the lesson and they do not want to be the only ones exposing their ignorance.

Similarly in the company board discussions when a senior member is presenting important decisions, the other members do not question the rationale or assumptions behind these decisions as each one thinks that other members understand and appear comfortable.

Reacting to boss

On the positive side, when large scale opinion building is required, pluralistic ignorance can be recruited by a mass leader to evangelise his personal view and convert it into a public opinion. Mahatma Gandhi understood this and leveraged the concept of social proof, also known as informational social influence, when people assume that the thinking and actions of more knowledgeable members in their social group reflect the correct thinking and behaviour and hence should be followed. He went on to convince his main followers that a true Indian will non-violently respond to all beatings by the British. Once he made sure that the senior leaders accepted this and made it their own firm belief, social proof and pluralistic ignorance took control and blew away any doubts in the minds of reluctant followers. This resulted in a whole mass of Indian people truly believing that non-violent protest would eventually topple the British regime culminating in one of the largest non-violent movements in the world.

We need to be aware of the ugly manifestation of pluralistic ignorance which is bigotry where some overzealous members of a group try to enforce group norms on all the reluctant members by resorting to severe criticism and even punishment. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes a party conference in which Joseph Stalin was given a standing ovation that went on and on for full eleven minutes, until a factory director finally sat down to the relief of everyone. The man was arrested later the same night and sent to the gulag for a decade.

It is common knowledge that powerful ideologically driven groups use fringe elements to punish and discipline members who raise any doubts about group norms. India, for instance, is struggling to embrace critical social reforms to change well entrenched attitudes and habits which is tearing apart the social fabric of the society. Unfortunately, the leaders of the powerful groups, in order to retain their own power and influence over people, strongly oppose such reforms even when majority of the members of these groups desire such changes. It is sad that Indian Supreme Court had to step in and rule that the self-appointed village courts or Khap Panchayats cannot stop a marriage between two consenting adults in these villages.


What is further disturbing about pluralistic ignorance is that it lends itself to control by the powerful and most visible who can create an aura of  “false consensus” forcing people to erroneously believe that they are part of the minority and hence need to keep quiet. This results in the extremists gaining influence out of all proportion to their numbers, while the views of the silent majority end up being suppressed.


Einstein Quote

A very interesting case cited in research literature involves male employees in Japan who were reluctant to take paternity leave, a family-friendly policy universally followed by all Japanese companies. It was earlier argued that the low rate of usage of such leave could be due to stigma attached to breaking the social rule accepted in Japan that  ‘men make houses and women make homes’. However a later survey showed that the majority of male employees actually did wish to take paternity leave but were reluctant to do so because of pluralistic ignorance and not due to any social norm.

We need to appreciate that pluralistic Ignorance and organizational culture go hand in hand. Values and beliefs entrenched in any organization become social norms to be followed by every employee, even if some of the employees have differing personal views. This makes organizations with good values to thrive while others with questionable values to suffer. For example, if the organizational culture leads employees to believe that unethical practices are quite common among senior management, then, even if they do not agree with such practices individually, they will nevertheless tend to follow such unethical practices. Interestingly a former employee of Enron declared that, as he had never worked in any other place, he thought that the unethical practices of his superiors were normal, acceptable and to be followed even though he personally did not agree with them.

OECD Integrity Forum published an interesting article by Jonathan Rusch of Georgetown University Law Centre, on ‘Social Psychology of Corruption’. The author  argues that the three factors namely social proof, diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance which together powerfully influence organizational members can be misused to condone corrupt practices. Thus even when most of the members themselves neither receive nor make corrupt payments, they will remain silent as others indulge in corrupt practices in the organization. The first factor social proof which is the tendency to take cues from other members in the organization makes them take no notice of corrupt practices. The second factor which is diffusion of responsibility makes them assume that others either are responsible for taking action or would do so if they thought it necessary. The third factor pluralistic ignorance makes these individuals to conclude that as others are silent witnesses to what is happening, these practices must be acceptable for some reason.

Since I touched upon a couple of new concepts, let me elaborate on them. Diffusion of responsibility or bystander effect is the phenomenon when an individual does not take action because a large group of other people are present. As the size of the group increases, it’s generally less likely that an individual will take any action. The diffusion of responsibility is most common in larger groups, when nobody has been appointed as the leader, and when the individual does not feel personally responsible for taking action.

'Sorry, I don't want to get involved.'

This results in the failure of entire group of bystanders from stepping in and helping out the victims who desperately need quick and timely help like in the case of a car accident.

Social psychologists attribute two possible reasons for the diffusion of responsibility. The individual may believe that someone else who is present will take action and therefore chooses to not take action personally. He may also believe that he will not be found personally responsible for inaction because there are so many other people present.

In such situations a single individual, uninfluenced by the non-reaction of a crowd, can react and save the day. Thus, if you are witnessing a health emergency like possible heart attack of a person in a crowd, your best bet, according to social scientists, is to single out a specific individual in the crowd and say, “Hey, you in the blue suit, call 911, I have an emergency” as opposed to thinking that someone out of this large group surely will come to your aid.

I am somebody

There have been many historical examples of the bystander effect. Perhaps one of the most famous is the murder of Kitty Genovese. In Spring of 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in a parking lot in New York. Reportedly, 37 people witnessed the attack that lasted about thirty minutes. The witnesses did not call for help or try to aid Kitty due to the diffusion of responsibility.





Pluralistic Ignorance

Click to access pluralistic_ignorance_and_social_change.pdf



Difficult But Necessary Endings

Our relationships are indeed the most important aspect of our lives. Healthy relationships are essential for leading a happy and satisfying life. Starting or ending or fixing or improving our relationships therefore are all very important decisions that we take. However, these efforts are generally clouded with emotions often leading to inappropriate decisions that cause grief, depression, anger or resentment to ourselves and others. The net result of these emotional decisions is that we live our lives bereft of joy and happiness.

Whether your relationship issues revolve around your spouse, partner, business associate, boss or family, they all have some common elements. These common parameters determine whether such a relationship plays a positive part in our lives or a negative part where we struggle to get any peace of mind and general wellbeing.

In both our personal and professional lives, there are times when it becomes necessary and important for us to stand up and “end” something. It could be something whose time has passed or more critically something that could spell destructive consequences if continued.


As Henry Cloud, Clinical Psychologist, Leadership Coach and author of over 20 books explains ‘Life and success require “necessary endings” but unfortunately we are too afraid to execute such endings’.  Please read his wonderful article on the subject using the link provided at the end of article.

Good starting point for this discussion is to ask some searching questions like

Are we unnecessarily creating things that should in fact be getting destroyed?

Are we embracing someone or something that we should rightfully be shunning?

Are we clinging on to things when rightfully we should be letting them go?

As an example, we may be stretching and straining ourselves to help someone without asking the question ‘Are we really trying to help someone who is disabled, incapable, or otherwise infirm or are we struggling to help someone who is simply refusing to grow up and is unwilling to take up any of his/her responsibilities seriously?’ If we are shouldering someone else’s responsibilities, then we need to ponder ‘Are we not going to be  stuck with this responsibility for a long time and in all probability are we not doing the greatest harm by destroying whatever intrinsic capabilities that the individual may have’.

Loyalty is a very misunderstood concept and is one that critically needs definition of boundary conditions. While loyalty is an admirable character, it does not mean that one needs to accept abusive behaviour or unfair treatment to show loyalty. It also does not mean that we take misplaced and unnecessary responsibility for someone else’s life.


Cutting ties with family members is one of the hardest decisions we may face in life because we are conditioned to believe that to terminate relationships with “family” is morally and inherently wrong. The reality is that “family members” are just regular people, some good and some bad, and if the bad people with toxic behaviour were not our family members, we would never allow them to be a part of our lives. False sense of family loyalty makes us spend precious years sacrificing our mental and emotional health in abusive relationships under the notion that we have to somehow put up with it. We are conditioned to believe that if we end relationships with family members, then we will be generally branded as selfish and unethical persons.


Behavioural neuroscience suggests that dealing with uncertainty may be the primary reason which delays necessary endings. Ending a relationship will be perceived as risky  and uncertain, particularly when the relationship has been built over a long period of time. Human beings have a strong bias called ‘loss aversion’. This makes the decision to end a relationship a very difficult one due to perceived losses. Such losses could be uncomfortable changes in our status quo, emotional or financial difficulties, loss of esteem from others etc. This loss aversion bias forces us to completely ignore potential gains of ending a relationship such as getting back peace of mind, feeling more empowered and independent freely doing things that give us satisfaction etc.

There is one more human bias called ‘Endowment Effect’ that comes into play in avoiding ending of relationships. This bias makes us give undue weightage and value to the investments that we have made in our relationships which could be emotional investment, large amounts of time and effort we have spent as well as financial investments. This bias completely overshadows all potential positive gains. This is a phenomenon economists call the “sunk cost fallacy”. The fallacy is the urge to try to recover something from the sunk investment instead of letting it go for other more important benefits.

When we hear people talking about their difficulties in ending a relationship with arguments like “we have gone through so much together” or “we have been together for so long“, we are actually witnessing the endowment effect and sunk cost fallacy in action.

Recently the Supreme Court of India allowed passive euthanasia. This is again a case of difficult but necessary ending of life of a terminally ill person without any consciousness by withdrawing the life support system.

One area where there is a lot of controversy due to various religious beliefs is the case for aborting a baby in the womb who is diagnosed with serious deficiencies. The parents ideally will need to take the call whether they are willing and wanting to take care of such a baby for many long years. If they do and in doing so derive satisfaction in taking care of such a child with love and affection, then they are very much entitled to do so. On the other hand, if they are not willing to take such a big responsibility, then the society should think twice before stopping them from resorting to painful but necessary ending.

We also need to appreciate the need to walk away from toxic environment in our workplaces.

Reporting to work every day where we are surrounded by people we love, respect, and admire can make a world of difference in our day-to-day life. On the other hand, when we find ourselves in the midst of co-workers where relationships are toxic, it is best to cut our losses and move on, because in most situations we may not have the power to drastically change the environment.

Whether we have ended the relationship or plan to end it or want to fix it, the most important part remains the same. It is the realization that we deserve a better life. That the actions, opinions, and mistakes of the people around us do not really define us. We must regain our self-confidence and our self-worth. Without these things, we cannot move forward. There’s no shame in doing what we need to do for ourselves not only for our own career growth but also for our own peace of mind and well-being.


Please remember the adage ‘Even God cannot help those who cannot help themselves’.

In the end, we need to realize that we were not designed just to cope with life but to thrive with enthusiasm, happiness and joy. But just like a rosebush, you can’t thrive without pruning, which means your necessary endings truly are urgent.


― Henry CloudNecessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward