Pluralistic ignorance, silent majorities, spiral of silence, hidden tribes

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

June 3, 2020 — June 11, 2022

collective knowledge
Figure 1

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? What if, in fact, few of us believe that we should do that?

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

To discover:

1 Is pluralistic ignorance common?

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.

2 Spiral of silence

Figure 2

The original named mechanism?

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.

3 Silent majorities

It is certainly popular to claim there is a silent majority. It is even a plausible claim. However the what the silent majority believes always seems to be conveniently what the speaker believes, which is not so plausible.

Haidt summarises

The “Hidden Tribes” study (Hawkins et al. 2019), by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives”, comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists”, comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.

These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team.

I’m not a fan of the archetype-based methods of The Hidden Tribes; I have seen too many facile unfalsifiable market segmentation models which prove arbitrary things. But I do find this one broad-brushstrokes plausible. I would really like to do the study over starting from their data but with fancier methods.[^While I was there I would undo another choice they made, which is to conflate extreme political positions with stridently/aggressively presenting those opinions. What about people who can present their extreme opinions nicely? They are around, and have greatly influenced me, and my own stance: to hold my extreme opinions, loosely and to present them amicably.]

4 Preference falsification

5 References

Hawkins, Yudkin, Juan-Torres, et al. 2019. Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” Preprint.
Kuran. 1997. Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.
Lambert, Kahn, and Apple. 2003. Pluralistic Ignorance and Hooking up.” The Journal of Sex Research.
O’Gorman, and Garry. 1976. Pluralistic Ignorance—A Replication and Extension.” Public Opinion Quarterly.
Prentice, and Miller. 1996. Pluralistic Ignorance and the Perpetuation of Social Norms by Unwitting Actors.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.