There are several definitions of pluralistic ignorance – in the fields of psychology, sociology, and communications the term is not used uniformly. But despite the differences in details, they all share a focus on the same phenomenon: the inaccuracy with which most people perceive or judge public opinion or at least the distribution of opinions in social groups.
The term was first coined by Allport & Katz in 1931 to describe situations where individuals make unfounded assumptions (and act on the basis of these assumptions) as to how others in their peer group will think, feel, or act (Allport & Katz 1931, 152). Later, Allport (1933) used the term to describe a situation in which members of a group who believed themselves to be in the minority were actually in the majority. Allport did not emphasize the relationship of the term to the concept of public opinion; he focused much more on social groups and the behavioral component of the idea. He argued that members of a social group usually perceive the norms of the group by observing the public behavior of others. If this behavior is discrepant to the individual norms or attitudes of the observing group member, he or she tends to believe that the norm discrepancy is his or her individual problem whereas he or she believes that nearly all other group members show this behavior because it is in line with their own social norms and attitudes.
As a consequence, the group member conforms to the norm to avoid embarrassing situations and displays the respective behavior, which again could be misperceived by the other group members as the usual and intended behavior of the majority. If the individual discrepancy between norms and behavior is widespread and holds true for most of the group members, this may lead to the paradox that a social group may follow some norms or show some behavior that most group members actually do not accept. This concrete phenomenon of the majority believing itself to be in the minority, including its behavioral consequences, is what Allport originally termed pluralistic ignorance. It includes the attribution of identical actions of self and other to different internal states (Miller & McFarland 1987). Up to now, the original meaning of pluralistic ignorance is still a line of research in social psychology (e.g., in studies on the causes and motives for the (ab)use of drugs or alcohol among college students).
Allport’s definition of pluralistic ignorance originally served as a concept for the discrepancy between private beliefs and public behavior. Researchers who followed broadened the definition. Breed & Ktsanes (1961), for instance, defined pluralistic ignorance as an inaccuracy in estimates of public opinion. Other scholars described pluralistic ignorance simply as the situation when the majority is wrong about the majority (which holds true for Allport’s original definition, but not for later definitions of pluralistic ignorance, because salient effects can occur even if only a minority shows misperceptions), while O’Gorman defined it briefly as “false social knowledge of other people” (1988, 145).
While some researchers labeled only one of the two possible directions of misperception as pluralistic ignorance, Taylor included both, suggesting that the term be used to describe a “situation when a minority position in public opinion is incorrectly perceived to be the majority position and vice versa” (Taylor 1982, 312). In communication science, this definition seems to be the most accepted in the recent literature. The crucial change to Allport’s definition is not only its link to the concept of public opinion, but the loss of the behavioral component in the original definition – in the field of public opinion, pluralistic ignorance is usually concerned with perceptual accuracy.
All the definitions above have in common that they describe pluralistic ignorance as a characteristic of a social group that has its cause in the average perceptions of the social reality by the members of the group. Therefore, the term can be seen as somewhat of a misnomer since the outcome is not truly pluralistic. Instead, it is a misperception each individual may or may not have in judging the attitudes, sentiments, or behavior of the plurality. Accordingly, the term “pluralistic ignorance” is not undisputed and there are several other terms in the literature that focus on the same phenomenon described by “pluralistic ignorance” above. For example, in 1932 Schank, one of Allport’s students, discovered a similar relationship between personal attitudes and group norms in a small New York community, but labeled the phenomenon “misperceived sharing,” or “misperceived consensus.” Sometimes, especially in the context of the spiral of silence, pluralistic ignorance is also referred to as “social optical delusion of the public about the public.”
Though pluralistic ignorance has its tradition and its explanatory roots in the tradition of general social perception, the salience and relevance accorded to the concept is due to its behavioral consequences. The relationship between perceived public opinion and an individual’s behavior corresponds to the logic of the Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they’re real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas 1928, 572). In the case of pluralistic ignorance, this means that each individual’s subjective perception of public opinion defines the individual social circumstances under which he or she is speaking or acting in public. Both correct and false perceptions of the public’s opinion may have the same impact upon the subject’s behavior – as long as he or she believes (even if erroneously) the perception to be “true.” The consequences may be serious: an incorrect perception of the political climate of opinion during an election campaign, for example, may lead to inappropriate voting decisions of single voters, for persuasive as well as for strategic reasons.
As a social psychological phenomenon, pluralistic ignorance is an important concept in communication research for various reasons. First, communication research is interested in public opinion in general, which naturally includes the social perception of public opinion. Second, the perception of public opinion is one of its own components – public opinion about public opinion. Third, most people’s actions are based not only on their own attitudes or opinions; frequently they are based on their perceptions of the opinions of others. Therefore, pluralistic ignorance concerns the behavioral consequences of public opinion. Furthermore, the measurement of people’s “real” opinions is difficult and frequently biased. In such cases, the measurement of perceived opinions can serve as an indicator not for “true” public opinion, but for underlying personal attitudes, and for this reason pluralistic ignorance is relevant to the measurement of public opinion. Additionally, in respect of its causes, the question arises as to whether the distortion of the perception of public opinion is caused at least partly by media coverage.
Pluralistic ignorance occurs only when individuals underestimate or overestimate the proportion of others having the same opinion as they have themselves. This inaccuracy or error in estimation can be tested only by comparing the actual distribution of opinions on an issue within a social group or representative sample with the distribution of opinions as it is perceived by the members of the group or sample. Therefore, pluralistic ignorance implies two different levels of observation: the aggregate level and the individual level.
The aggregate level is used to observe whether there is any discrepancy between actual and perceived public opinion; the individual level is used to observe which of the individuals belonging to this aggregate have an incorrect perception of the aggregate’s characteristics and what the cause of the distortion might be. In most investigations, actual public opinion is usually operationalized as the aggregation of all single opinions within the group or sample. To measure the perceived public opinion additionally, each member of the group must provide his or her estimations about the opinions of others. There are different operationalizations of perceived public opinion: some studies ask simply for minorities and majorities, which is a dichotomous measurement; others ask subjects to rate the percentage of the different proportions, which allows for more complex analysis. Since both kinds of data, perceived and actual public opinion, are usually collected within the same survey, some caution in questionnaire design is necessary to avoid halo effects.
With respect to methodological aspects, it is important to consider that pluralistic ignorance is, as Glynn et al. (1995) point out, a product, not a process: it describes the state of misperception at one arbitrarily chosen point of time. Since public opinion changes at least slightly from day to day, measured differences between actual and perceived public opinion are no surprise at all, since one can safely assume that the perception of public opinion follows the development of public opinion with a delay. Therefore, the discrepancies could be considered as just an artificial effect, depending on the time of measurement, which will vanish as soon as the perception of public opinion catches up with public opinion. However, research in general shows that this argument is untenable, since pluralistic ignorance can be observed for issues with stable distribution of public opinion as well as for issues with changing majorities. In addition, there is evidence for constant misperceptions within the same issue over decades.
Explanations Of Misperceptions
Early research on pluralistic ignorance has focused on one crucial question: why do people perceive the opinions of others incorrectly? Pluralistic ignorance has been found in different countries, different cultural settings, and on a large number of different issues. Therefore, explanations for the occurrence of misperceptions based on specific cultural conditions are limited and insufficient. Accordingly, recent research has focused on the pattern of the perceptions of opinion and on the psychological and social factors influencing the accuracy of these perceptions. Within this research, one can identify different approaches or phenomena that can be summed up under the term “pluralistic ignorance”: false consensus effect, looking glass perception, and false idiosyncrasy. The connections of the different concepts to pluralistic ignorance are outlined below.
False consensus can serve as an explanation for findings in pluralistic ignorance where minorities perceive themselves erroneously to be in the majority. False consensus means that most people tend to consider their own opinions as common and appropriate and therefore expect them to be shared by a larger proportion of others, whilst alternative opinions are perceived as deviant and inappropriate (Ross et al. 1977). Research identified biased information availability, as well as the need for self-enhancement and social support, as possible explanations for the phenomenon. Within this line of research, the overestimation of consensus (the tendency of an individual to overestimate the group of people who share his or her opinion) is relevant. It is in contrast to Allport’s original definition, which focused on the pattern that people tend to believe their felt norm discrepancies to be an exception. However, it serves as an explanation for the overestimation of minorities within the newer tradition of linking pluralistic ignorance to public opinion.
Similar to false consensus is what is called looking glass perception (Fields & Schumann 1976), sometimes also termed “egocentric bias” or “social projection.” This term describes people’s tendency to assume that others have the same opinions on issues as they themselves. It is assumed that this effect is independent of the actual distribution of opinion and is relatively widespread. However, for some issues with ideological aspects, an ideological bias may prevent looking glass perception.
False consensus and looking glass perception describe situations in which people do not agree but think they do – when a minority perceives itself as in the majority. The opposite (and original) pattern of pluralistic ignorance is when people agree, but do not realize it – when a majority perceives itself as in the minority. This has been coined “false idiosyncrasy” or “silent majority” effect (Eveland 2002). It may occur if people believe their own position to be not in line with public norms and therefore overestimate the position of public opinion that is in contrast to their own. It is possible that this is also the reason for the ideological bias mentioned above.
Pluralistic Ignorance And The Media
Many studies in pluralistic ignorance try to explain the misperceptions underlying the concept by examining psychological and/or social influences on perception but do not discuss media effects as a possible cause. This is surprising, for Allport had in 1924 mentioned three sources of information for inferences about the opinion of others: rumors, social projection, and the press (Allport 1924, 308). Nevertheless, there are a few approaches in media effects research that can be usefully linked to the phenomenon: the hostile media effect, the third-person effect, the spiral of silence, cultivation research, and exemplification effects.
The hostile media phenomenon (Vallone et al. 1985) postulates that many with a partisan view on an issue tend to misperceive relatively neutral news content as biased against their own position. Since this perception can be found for partisans on different sides of an issue, at least one of the partisan sides must be misperceiving the bias in media coverage. Because of this misperception and because of common assumptions about the power of mass media, people assume an influence of the perceived bias on public opinion and therefore estimate public opinion incorrectly.
This effect may be amplified by the third-person effect (Davison 1983), which postulates that most people believe that the media have a greater impact on others than on themselves. Because of this misperception, people assume the surrounding society to be strongly influenced by media coverage that may lead to changing estimations of public opinion. Since they are founded upon exaggerated assumptions of media impact, these perceptions of the climate of opinion may be misperceptions.
The spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann 1974), a dynamic theory of public opinion, postulates that most people fear isolation and therefore tend to express their opinion in public only if it is in line with the opinion they perceive as being in the majority, otherwise they remain silent. The spiral of silence assumes that people have a “quasi-statistical sense” that makes them able to estimate public opinion and to identify majority and minority positions. Hence, a person’s willingness to express (or not to express) his or her opinions in public is perceived by others and influences their inferences on the climate of opinion. Nevertheless, according to the theory, the quasi-statistical sense can be distorted by media coverage due to its consonant, ubiquitous, and cumulative character. This may lead to misperceptions of the climate of opinion and inappropriate behavior in public as a consequence.
The cultivation approach (Gerbner et al. 1980) suggests that in the course of the last few decades television has become the most important cultural factor in society. Therefore, television – and particularly its entertainment programs – is shaping viewers’ conceptions of social reality (“mainstreaming”). Since the TV world differs from the real world, the conceptions of heavy viewers established by television may be incorrect and, with regard to public opinion, these conceptions may result in pluralistic ignorance. Exemplification effects (Zillmann & Brosius 2000) describe the impact of examples selected and covered by the media upon the recipients’ conceptions and especially on their perceived climate of opinion. Many investigations showed that abstract statistical data, for example poll results, hardly have an impact on these conceptions, whereas a few personal statements as examples of public opinion can have a strong impact upon the perceived climate of opinion which may of course lead to pluralistic ignorance.
Today, the spiral of silence is the only theory that attempts to combine predictions of different patterns of pluralistic ignorance as well as explanations for their occurrence in a larger theoretical framework. Though there has been much progress, up to now the research and findings on pluralistic ignorance are still very heterogeneous. There are many different approaches and concepts, but successful attempts at theoretical and/or interdisciplinary integration are still lacking. The explanation of social misperceptions remains a challenge for future communication research.
- Allport, F. H. (1924). Social psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Allport, F. H. (1933). Institutional behavior. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Allport, F. H., & Katz, D. (1931). Student attitudes: A report of the Syracuse University Reaction Study. Syracuse, NY: Craftsman.
- Breed, W., & Ktsanes, T. (1961). Pluralistic ignorance in the process of opinion formation. Public Opinion Quarterly, 25(3), 382–392.
- Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47(1), 1–15.
- Eveland, W. P. (2002). The impact of news and entertainment media on perceptions of social reality. In J. P. Dillard & M. Pfau (eds.), The persuasion handbook: Developments in theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Fields, J. M., & Schumann, H. (1976). Public beliefs about the beliefs of the public. Public Opinion Quarterly, 40(4), 427–448.
- Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “mainstreaming” of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 30, 10–29.
- Glynn, C. J., Ostman, R. E., & McDonald, D. G. (1995). Opinions, perception, and social reality. In T. L. Glasser & C. T. Salmon (eds.), Public opinion and the communication of consent. New York and London: Guilford.
- Miller, D. T., & McFarland, C. (1987). Pluralistic ignorance: When similarity is interpreted as dissimilarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 298–305.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24, 43–51.
- O’Gorman, H. J. (1988). Pluralistic ignorance and reference groups: The case of ingroup ignorance. In H. J. O’Gorman (ed.), Surveying social life. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 145–173.
- Ross, L., Green, D., & House, P. (1977). The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279– 301.
- Schank, R. L. (1932). A study of a community and its groups and institutions conceived of as behaviors of individuals. Psychological Monographs, 43(2), 1–133.
- Taylor, D. G. (1982). Pluralistic ignorance and the spiral of silence: A formal analysis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 46(3), 311–335.
- Thomas, W. I., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf.
- Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577–585.
- Zillmann, D., & Brosius, H.-B. (2000). Exemplification theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.