Pluralistic ignorance, spiral of silence

We all believe that we all believe what we do not believe

Placeholder. In social norms what if the norm is not what we all personally believe we should do, but rather what we all believe we all believe we should do but in fact few of us believe?

This is both a source of fun intellectual puzzles and also an important rhetorical strategy.

To discover:

  • Rhetorical uses of claims to pluralistic ignorance (it is certainly popular to claim to be part of a silent majority, and hard to disprove that claim in general)
  • Relationship to majority illusions.
  • relationship to taboos
  • Origin of concept. American 1970s racial segregation research?
  • Heterogenaeity. What if the beliefs are truly synchronised in some portion of the population but not in others?
  • Preference falsification

Reed College’s surveys are fun case studies via surveys (quibble: they focus on the mean on the ordinal scale which is methodologically lazy and misses some possible interesting phenomena.) Anyway, the data has lots of sex in so it’s interesting. let us quote them:

Simply put, pluralistic ignorance occurs when individual members of a group (such as a school, a team, a workplace, or a group of friends) believe that others in their group hold comparably more or less extreme attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. When many members of any one group hold the same misperception about the group norm, this norm ceases to represent the actual composite beliefs and attitudes of the group. In other words, there is an actual group norm, comprised of the actual average attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of all individuals in the group, and there is a perceived norm, which is the group-wide assumption of extremity in the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of other group members.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s idea of spiral of silence is clearly related, e.g. Glenn Loury summarizes

And the argument was, there can be some views, some issues in society that get defined in such a way that it’s inappropriate to hold those views. And as a result, people who don’t want to be shamed, who don’t want to be ostracized, don’t express those views. And when they don’t express them, anybody holding the view, because they don’t hear it said by others, think that they’re the only one or one of the few who hold the view, and so they don’t want to be the only one out there saying something. So they keep it to themselves.


Lambert, Tracy A., Arnold S. Kahn, and Kevin J. Apple. 2003. Pluralistic Ignorance and Hooking up.” The Journal of Sex Research 40 (2): 129–33.
O’Gorman, Hubert J., and Stephen L. Garry. 1976. Pluralistic Ignorance—A Replication and Extension.” Public Opinion Quarterly 40 (4): 449–58.
Prentice, Deborah A., and Dale T. Miller. 1996. Pluralistic Ignorance and the Perpetuation of Social Norms by Unwitting Actors.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by Mark P. Zanna, 28:161–209. Academic Press.

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