Have you ever felt compelled to agree with a statement or position among a group of peers because you believed that it is what the group wanted or thought was the correct position to take. A subtle case of peer pressure that is frequently experience in group situations. But consider - what if the rest of the group actually has the same contrarian thoughts and like you does not voice them, thinking that the rest of the group believes differently.
This situation is known as pluralistic ignorance
, a well documented cognitive bias that results in teams and groups making decisions that potentially no one actually believes is the correct decision, but they go along with it in the mistaken belief that they are the only ones who disagree.
If there is pluralistic ignorance at work, this actual
group attitude will differ significantly from the average group attitude reported by the participants (the perceived
norm). A perceived norm is different from an actual norm because it has to do with what people think a norm is, rather than what the norm actually is. If a perceived norm is significantly different from an actual norm, then pluralistic ignorance exists regarding that ‘norm.’ (Reed College
Situations like this arise where leaders or group norms have made it difficult for people to stand up for their beliefs - no one is going to go out of their way with what they might believe to be a contrarian position if they are likely to be aggressively put in their place.
In a “Does anyone have any questions?” scenario like this, each confused individual waits to see if anyone else raises their hands, not wanting to be singled out as the only person falling behind. When no one does, each then assumes they must be the only person who has no idea what is going on and decides to remain silent. After a few seconds, the speaker moves on, and the result is a shared, inaccurate view of reality in which everyone thinks that everyone else has no questions. The speaker thinks the room is following along just fine, and everyone begins living a lie.
another example is from the parable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
In the story by Hans Christian Andersen, a vain emperor hires two tailors who tell him they’ve made a suit of clothes so fine that it appears invisible to people who are unfit for their job or are very dumb. The trick, of course, is that the tailors haven’t made anything at all. All the emperor’s lackeys and subjects act as if his clothes were beautiful and amazing out of fear of appearing stupid or unfit, until finally a child points out that the emperor is walking around naked. At that point, everyone sighs in relief and feels safe to say what they were thinking all along. Stories with similar plots go back to antiquity, so the idea has been with us for a long time. The takeaway is usually: if someone has the courage to speak up, then the spell will be broken.
I find this cognitive bias so interesting in how it highlights situations we have all faced in personal and professional social scenarios. Next time you are sitting in a meeting of some sort either disagreeing with or not understanding a statement that is being put forward, call out the emperor. You might be surprised that actually a significant number of others feel the same way and are just not game to speak out. Possibly even the person making the statement is just doing so because they feel obliged to but don’t agree with it themselves!
Of course you might also find that your position, even though it might be supported by others, is so contrarian or counter to a very strong social personality that by speaking out you simply become isolated and on your own. No guarantees either way.
Good luck with that…. :)
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