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.