Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic Ignorance

TV shows and movies frequently have scenes where one character has been putting up with something they dislike in order to please another character, only to find out that the other character also dislikes the thing. I can think of instances where characters have been drinking particular beverages they dislike, playing games they don’t enjoy, or wearing clothing they hate, just because they think another character enjoys that particular thing and they want to share in that experience with the other person. It is a little corny, but I really enjoy the moment when the character recognizes they have been putting themselves in agony for the benefit of the other person, only to realize they have been in agony as well!

 

This particular comedic device plays on pluralistic ignorance. We don’t ever truly know what is in another person’s head, and even if we live with someone for most of our life, we can’t ever know them with complete certainty. When it comes to really knowing everyone around us and everyone in our community or society, we can only ever know most people at a minimal surface level. We follow cues from others that we want to be like, that we think are popular, and that we want to be accepted by. But when everyone is doing this, how can any of us be sure that we all actually want to be the way we present ourselves? We are all imagining what other people think, and trying to live up to those standards, not realizing that we may all hate the thing that we think everyone else considers cool.

 

The whole situation reminds me of AP US History from my junior year in high school. My friend Phil sat toward the back of the classroom and the year he and I had the class was the very last year for our teacher before he planned to retire. He was on autopilot most of the year, a good teacher, but not exactly worried about whether his students payed attention in class or cheated on tests. For one test, Phil was copying off the girl next to him, only to realize halfway through class that she was cheating off him! When Phil told the story later, we all had to ask where any answers were coming from if they were both cheating off each others test.

 

Pluralistic ignorance feels like Phil and his AP US History test. However, pluralistic ignorance can be much more important than my little anecdote. Yesterday’s post was about collective conservatism, a form of groupthink where important decision-makers stick to tradition and familiar strategies and answers even as the world changes and demands new and innovative responses. Pluralistic ignorance can limit our responses to change, locking in tradition because we think that is what people want, even though people may be tired of old habits and patterns and ready for something new.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “An important problem here is pluralistic ignorance – that is, ignorance, on the part of all or most, about what other people think. We may follow a practice or tradition not because we like it, or even think it defensible, but merely because we think that most other people like it.”

 

A real world example I can think of would be driving cars. Many people in the country absolutely love cars and see them as symbols of freedom, innovation, and American ingenuity. Thinking that people would be willing to give up their cars or change anything about them seems delusional, and public policy, advertising campaigns, and car designs reflect the idea that people want more, bigger, and faster cars. But is this actually true for most Americans?

 

Our cars emit toxic fumes, tens of thousands of people die annually in crashes, and the lights and sounds of cars can keep those who live along busy streets or next to car enthused neighbors awake at night. People have to pay for auto insurance, vehicles break down frequently, require constant costly maintenance, and in the US there is a constant pressure to have a newer and nicer car to signal how well off one is. My sense is that people generally dislike cars, especially anything dealing with purchasing or repairing a car, but that they put up with them because they think other people like cars and value and respect their car choice. I believe that if there were enough reliable, fast, and convenient alternative transportation options, people would start to ditch cars. I think lots of people buy fancy, powerful, and loud cars because they think other people like them, not necessarily because they actually like the car themselves. If we could come together in an honest way, I think we could all scale back our cars, opting for smaller, quieter, less polluting vehicles or public transportation. There are certainly a lot of problems with public transportation, but I think our obsession and connections with cars is in part pluralistic ignorance as to how much other people actually like and value cars. We are trapped in a vehicular arms race, when we would really all rather not have to worry about cars in the first place.
Ignore Our Ignorance

Ignore Our Ignorance

There is a quote that is attributed to Harry Truman along the lines of, “give me a one-handed economist.” The quote references the frustrations that any key decision-maker might have when faced with challenging and sometimes conflicting information and choices. On the one hand is a decision with a predicted set of outcomes, but on the other hand is another decision or a separate undesirable set of consequences. The quote shows how challenging it is to understand and navigate the world when you have complex and nuanced understandings of what is happening.

 

Living in ignorance actually makes choices and decisions easier – there is no other hand of separate choices, of negative consequences, or different points of view. Ignoring our ignorance is preferable when we live our own narrative constructions, where what we see is all there is, and reality is what we make it to be.

 

Daniel Kahneman writes about this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, and how these narrative fallacies lead to so many of our predictable cognitive errors. He writes, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

 

When I think about Kahneman’s quote, I think about myself upon graduating with a Masters in Public Administration and Policy and my older sister upon her high school graduation. My sister has had strong political views for a very long time, views that she readily adopted as a high school student. Her self-assured profession of her political views which contrasted against the self-assured political views of my parents is part of what sparked an interest in me to study political science and public policy. I wanted to understand how people became so sure of political views that I didn’t fully understand, but which I could see contained multitudes of perspectives, benefits, and costs.

 

At the completion of my degree I felt that I had a strong understanding of the political processes in the United States. I could understand how public policy was shaped and formed, I could describe how people came to hold various points of view and why some people might favor different policies. But what I did not gain was a sense that one particular political approach was necessarily correct or inherently better than any other. So much of our political process is dependent on who stands to benefit, what is in our individual self-interest, and what our true goals happen to be. At the completion of a study of politics, I felt that I knew more than many, but I did not exactly feel that my political opinions were stronger than the political opinions of my sisters when she graduated high school. Her opinions were formed in ignorance (not saying this in a mean way!), and her limited perspective allowed her to be more confident in her opinions than I could be with my detailed and nuanced upstanding of political systems and processes.

 

Our views of the world and how we understand our reality is shaped by the information we absorb and the experiences we have. What you see is all there is, and the narrative you live within will make more sense when you are more ignorant of the complexities of the world around you. Your narrative will be simpler and more coherent since there won’t be other hands to contrast against your opinions, desires, and convictions.
Addiction Can't be Fought with Pain

Addiction Can’t be Fought With Pain

With the exception of the copious amounts of caffeine I consume thanks to a high coffee intake, I don’t use any drugs and don’t really have any personal direct experience with the world of recreational drug use or drug addiction.  Nevertheless, our nation’s opioid crisis has always stood out to me as an important and intriguing policy issue. Despite not having first hand knowledge of drug culture in the United States, I have been able to recognize the changing landscape as more states provided legal avenues to obtaining marijuana, as policy discussions popped into my orbit about racial disparities in drug sentencing, and as prominent American figures opened up about drug addiction in their family. To better understand the issue I selected a handful of books to read to better understand drug use and addiction in America. One of the books I read was Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream.

 

Before my mini dive into drug policy and drug use literature, I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about our nation’s response to drugs. The idea that we would lock up drug addicts and those who tampered with or misused prescription medications seemed normal. I figured that putting people in prison where they would be away from drugs and monitored as they went through withdrawals made sense, and I had no reason to question the system and approaches we used to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, as the opioid crisis spread, I recognized how incomplete my understanding was, and sought out new information to better understand why our county has faced such serious drug problems. Across the books I read, what I learned was that drug policy has been racially biased throughout American history, and that drug use and addiction is often deeply tied to pain and trauma, and worsened by the loss of community.

 

These themes ran throughout the books I read and made me re-think the way we approach drug addiction and how we are so quick to punish drug abuse. My sense is that most Americans think along the same lines that I previously thought along – unaware of the deep social factors that run through so much of the drug abuse and addiction in our country.

 

Johann Hari writes, “The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject – it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain.”

 

So many of the people who fall into drug addiction originally turn to drug use and misuse as a way to ease some sort of pain stemming from a deep trauma. America’s suburbs have reduced our sense of community, and furthered isolation in our country. People with pain and trauma have minimal support for mental and emotional challenges, and as a result, often turn to drugs to attempt to manage the psychological or physical pain they live with.

 

Our response has been punishment, not support. People with deep pain and trauma cannot be healed by making their lives more painful, more traumatic, and by putting more barriers in front of a successful and healthy life. We assume drug addicts need to face more severe consequences to scare them away from drug use, but that is because we fail to see the common threads I have been writing about over the last several weeks. The result has been disastrous for those who find themselves misusing drugs and facing a road to addiction. Punishing the thing we are afraid of in an attempt to stamp it out only entrenches it further, and makes it worse for all of society. We have to recognize the reality of pain and trauma combined with a decimation of our sense of community in regard to addiction. We have to solve those problems first before we can ask people to work with us to fight through drug abuse and addiction.

Cooperating With Others

Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of accepting others and working with others in his collection of thoughts, Meditations. In his writing he addresses the importance of accepting the shortcomings of others and being willing to cooperate with them in part of a functioning society. No matter how much we strive to be great, we will always be around those who do not share the same goals as us, and do not try to live up to the same principles that we do.  Aurelius writes that we should understand this and be willing to meet with them and work with them even though it can be a challenge for us. He writes,

 

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.  For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.  To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting agains one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 

In this passage Aurelius is accepting that people will approach and see the world differently than he does, and he attributes their shortcomings to their ignorance.  It is important that we read this and do not think that we can place ourselves above others by criticizing them for being ignorant.  Aurelius would argue that we must treat them with the same respect with which we treat ourselves, because we are oftentimes guilty of the same type of ignorance and misunderstanding in our own life. I think it is also important to say that we should not go about life trying to educate others and show them of their ignorance. The best way to combat the misunderstandings of others is to build relationships with them, gain their trust, and engage with them to better understand their points of view while sharing your understanding of the world.

 

Aurelius is arguing that we must accept others because we need to cooperate with them in all that we do in society.  We cannot hate others or try to avoid interactions with them as our society depends on our participation as a unit.  We must find a way to mesh with others and adept to those who are ignorant of their actions and behaviors. If we do not, then we shut out those with whom we happen to be working with.  By overcoming the pitfalls of our own personalities and the behaviors and actions of others, we can better align to improve the lives of all in society.

I had originally written this post prior to reading Corey Booker’s book United in which he retells his life story and explains his perspectives of the world. Booker’s thoughts go hand in hand with Aurelius’ quote above. He sees us as a united people despite how different we may look and behave, and despite how different our country has treated people throughout our history.  As a senator from New Jersey, Booker is striving to better our country from a platform of togetherness in which we must find ways to cherish the power of our connectedness and lift each other up. In Booker’s mindset, despite our differences in thought, appearance, culture, and beliefs, we all share our common humanity, and when we work to improve the experiences and lives of one, we improve the universe for all.