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How to spot “pluralistic ignorance” before it derails your team

When all your teammates fall for “the emperor’s new clothes,” the results can be disastrous — here’s how to bust the groupthink.
An etching of a whale.
Getty Images / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • “Pluralistic ignorance” occurs when a group of people stay silent or fail to act because they wrongly think everyone else believes differently from them.
  • It’s the psychological version of “the emperor’s new clothes” and it reveals a fundamental issue in our “theory of mind.”
  • Here we look at three examples of pluralistic ignorance in the workplace — and how we can beat it.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab obsessively hunts his white whale. He leads his crew all over the ocean, desperately seeking his revenge on the whale that took his leg. Almost everyone in the crew has their doubts. They side-eye and whisper their way around the sea, but they never say anything. They all assume the others are on board. Only first mate Starbuck dares to challenge Ahab and even contemplates killing the captain to save the rest of the crew from Ahab’s monomaniacal and self-destructive quest.

The sailors of the Pequod were trapped by a great many things. They were entranced by the spell of Ahab’s personal charisma and anesthetized by a heady potion of loyalty, stirred through with fear. But more than anything else, the crew were caught in a condition known as “pluralistic ignorance.”

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Pluralistic ignorance, or the “Abilene paradox,” is when almost everyone in a group thinks one way but doesn’t voice or act upon it because they think everyone else thinks another. It’s the modern name for “the emperor’s new clothes,” where everyone knew the emperor’s new suit didn’t exist, but they didn’t say anything because they thought everyone else knew something they didn’t.

Here we look more at this strange phenomenon and see how it applies in our everyday lives and how we can break free of its ridiculous spell.

Does no one else see that fire?

Pluralistic ignorance is both anecdotally known and scientifically proven. In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch proved that if you put people in a group who all claimed an answer was wrong, they were almost always more likely to agree with them, even when they thought the answer was different. This still proved true even when the answer was obviously wrong. John Darley and Bibb Latané showed a similar effect in the 1970s, when “job applicants” for a fake job would sit in a room increasingly full of smoke and not say anything so long as others didn’t, either.

Groupthink, mass suggestion, and peer pressure all have a role to play in pluralistic ignorance. But what makes pluralistic ignorance its own thing is the epistemological element to it. Whenever we interact with people, we employ some kind of theory of mind — we have to make certain assumptions about someone’s behaviors and belief systems. Theory of mind is the way we map people’s desires or intentions. If I see you looking at the clock, I assume you have to be somewhere or might be, inexplicably, bored of my twenty-minute lecture on Schopenhauer’s later works.

So, with pluralistic ignorance, we mistakenly assume a lot of people believe a certain thing. For example, imagine you are in a meeting. It’s 5.39 p.m. on a Friday, and you’re tired. You look around the room, and everyone seems to be earnestly nodding, sitting straight, and with the wide eyes of a job-seeking intern. You assume that everyone else is quite happy to be there. They love meetings. Of course, in reality, everyone hates this as much as you do. Most people want to clock off and head to the pub. But everyone lives under the mistaken belief — and a faulty theory of mind — that they’re alone.

Groupthink and social loafers

What are some common examples of pluralistic ignorance in our day-to-day lives? And how can we avoid its spell in the workplace?

Build a question-friendly environment. When I was training to be a teacher, one of the first things they told me to do was avoid the question, “Does everyone understand?” Invariably, you’ll get nods all around; few people want to appear dumb and admit to not understanding. It requires courage to be the first person to break the silence and admit ignorance. Better, instead, to test knowledge: “So, what are you going to do first?” and “What page do you have to turn to?”

Of course, while in many ways adults are just kids with mortgages, it’s wise not to patronize your colleagues like this. But you should always assume that someone in the room has questions. The key, then, is to create a comfortable, question-friendly environment. There are many ways to do this, but two of the most important are: first, create the right group dynamics, especially the size (smaller is often better); and second, be a good question-taker. Nod, smile, and say, “Good question, thanks,” even if it’s the most idiotic thing you’ve heard this year.

Beware the social loafer. Working as a team is a productive, and often unavoidable, part of work. We have to delegate and contribute if we are to get anything big done. The problem, though, is that some people are not natural group workers. They might be productivity machines on their own, but when you put them in a group, they coast, loaf, and sponge. You have probably known a social loafer. They are the ones who get their name in the credits and contribute next to nothing. The problem is that people often don’t call the loafers out. Everyone doing the hard work knows what Lazy Larry is doing. Lazy Larry is watching classic football games from the 1990s on YouTube, but no one says anything.

In 2017, Lang et al. released a paper considering methods to prevent social loafing, and they suggested three things to help if you have loafers in your team. First, explain what social loafing is. Give a very generic definition, being careful not to necessarily make it about anyone specific. Second, formalize a “Team Expectations Agreement,” which outlines explicitly what everyone should do and by when. Finally, establish that “a small survey instrument is used to track regularly if the specified terms are followed by the team members.” Explain, define, and measure.

Break the patterns of groupthink. Groupthink is the habitual, everyday manifestation of pluralistic ignorance. It’s when everyone zombie-shuffles along in their work day along the same old paths and in the same old ways. This is how it’s always been done. This is what we always must do. The Borg would be proud. Over on Big Think+, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant gives us advice about how to break out of the groupthink rut. Grant runs us through some practical tips to turn “bootlickers” into “boat rockers.”

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