Pluralistic ignorance posits that in certain circumstances most people will falsely believe that others conform to certain ideas or standards, and will uphold them, too, while privately disagreeing with them. Since there is a fear of disagreeing with what is believed to be the norm, situations or behaviors continue that few people actually endorse. This is a social psychology concept that was first brought to attention in the 1930s by Floyd Allport and Daniel Katz. It can also be called a mistaken belief in a person’s uniqueness, which stands in the way of action or change.
One example of pluralistic ignorance occurs in a type of social phenomenon called the bystander effect, which has been well observed in group settings. When a person is a victim to a crime, a greater number of people observing it translates to less likelihood of anyone intervening. All share the mistaken belief that someone else will step in and help.
Even if each person deplores the crime and believes that someone should help, he or she strongly ascribes to the idea that the helper will be another individual. For this reason, in self-defense classes, people are often taught to make an appeal to a single individual to shake that person from the pluralistic view. Moreover, if several people start helping, it’s likely most of the group will begin to intervene, too.
Other examples of pluralistic ignorance are not difficult to find. Many Germans living during World War II privately deplored the actions of Hitler, but thought they were the only ones who did. Similarly, many white Southerners in the US detested slavery or the Jim Crow laws that followed. Since they believed their views were unique, they did not step forward to seek justice on behalf of African Americans. During the 1960s Civil Rights movement, though, many white Southerners participated with vigor because they realized numerous people shared their personal abhorrence of discrimination.
It could be said that pluralistic ignorance is an ironic desire to conform to a larger group. People act or fail to act based on a false idea of the values that group holds, and a belief that any differences from the group are a minority opinion. This is irony because the estimation of what the group believes is incorrect, and most members actually share an opinion in opposition to the values the group upholds.
Numerous social psychology researchers have studied pluralistic ignorance in different settings. It has been examined in bullying behavior, in college drinking attitudes, and in a variety of settings where ethics and values are upheld or ignored. These studies seem to suggest that pluralistic ignorance is common, and a desire to be part of the group may lead individuals and whole groups to retain norms with which they really fundamentally disagree.