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



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