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Pluralistic ignorance, a barrier to action

Imagine that you are in the midst of a lecture on 'Two-way Repeated and Mixed Design ANOVA's' (ergh, I feel your pain), and your lecturer pauses to ask if anyone has any questions…


You take a minute to look around the room to find no one has raised a hand. But you have a million questions. Why? What is wrong with you? Does everyone understand what a 'Two-way blah blah blah' is? You don't want to look like an idiot, so you sit there in silence.

But what you have actually done is taken the rooms tacit compliance as genuine understanding.

This is a prime example of pluralistic ignorance. In this specific example, you made inferences, erroneous ones at that, from what you thought was 'normal' behaviour by your classmates, and used that to guide your judgements and decisions. Unfortunately however, your assessments were mistaken and negatively impacted upon your behaviour.

So how can pluralistic ignorance affect other aspects of our life? In particular, is it possible that pluralistic ignorance could be affecting our thoughts and actions when it comes to the current climate crisis?

Your house is on fire! While there are a wave of individuals and groups who are demanding action, like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, there are also individuals, including many of whom have the power to enact change who are simply denying the impact of climate change altogether.

"I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is." Greta Thunberg - World Economic Forum, Davos, 25 Jan 2019

So in order to understand the role that pluralistic ignorance might have to play I recommend taking a look at the short clip below on the 1960's "The Smoke Filled Room" experiment.

This video demonstrates that individuals may mistakenly believe that they are in the minority with their concerns, and the inaccurate perceptions of other's opinions (i.e. pluralistic ignorance) can result in self-silencing. Exactly what Greta and the many other activists are telling us not to do!

In the case of climate change, pluralistic ignorance may be erecting barriers to much needed discussions among those most concerned about the issue. It may also be leading to impression management in an attempt to avoid social punishment, and be seen as part of the in-group, portraying oneself in the most positive way.

When it comes to fashion and climate change, let's not be the bystander who doesn't intervene, but the Good Samaritan who stops and helps!

Additional resources For more on this check out Geiger & Swim (2016) study on Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion.

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