Pluralistic Ignorance

August 13

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Pluralistic Ignorance: What Entrepreneurs and Marketers Need to Know

By Nate McCallister

Last Updated August 13, 2020


Teacher: Ok, before we move on, does anyone have any questions?

Confused Student: [Looks around room to see if any hands are raised.]

Classroom: [No hands raised]

Confused Student: [Doesn't raise hand. Assumes she's in the minority and doen't want to embarass herself.]

Teacher: [Proud of himself for being such an amazing teacher.] Ok, let's move on then.

The scenario above is played out every single day across classrooms around the world. 

Students assume that the majority of their peers understand something that they don't. They assume that they're the minority that doesn't get it.

In reality, this is often not the case due to something called pluralistic ignorance

Understanding what it is and why it happens will not only make you a smarter person, it can help your business.

What Is Pluralistic Ignorance?

Pluralistic ignorance is the common misconception that we understand what the majority is actually thinking. In reality, what the majority of people are really thinking does not always match with what we see on the surface.

The scenario above is just one of countless examples of pluralistic ignorance.

More Pluralistic Ingorance Examples

It's painful to think back on how much progress has been delayed because of pluralitic ignorance. 

One of the most upsetting examples is the delayed removal of racial segregation in the United States.

Pluralistic Ignorance and Segregation

A study by sociologist Hubert J. O'Gorman in 1975 picked apart surveys of white Americans during the final years of racial segregation in the United States.

For the first half of the 20th century, segregation was considered socially acceptable. It was part of the beliefs, values and norms of society (particularly in the Deep South) and was cemented by law. 

However, when Gorman took surveys of Caucasians from that time period, it turned out that only a small number of white people actually supported segregation.

The sad part was that although most people disagreed, they still assumed that the majority favored keeping things as is.

They assumed that their beliefs were less common than they were, causing them to be less likely to deviate from the group and work for change.

For example, in the Deep South, only 32% of people favored segregation but 61% believed that the majority favored it. The majority was also misassumed in the North (although by much less). 

The surveys showed that close to half of all U.S. citizens believed that the majority of the country was in favor of continuing segregation when in reality the support was around just 20%. 

Now, pluralistic ignorance isn't all bad. It can occassionally work in favor of progress.

For example, political correctness in the 21st century is assumed by many to be the norm, even though many people are not fans of it behind closed doors.

It's the assumed norm of the majority so most people will default to political correctedness when in public.

Combatting Pluralistic Ignorance

No one is immune to pluralistic ignorance. It's a passive default in all humans.

Evolutionarily, we innately seek out and follow the norms of our peers. We want to stay with the crowd. Our primate brain was wired to believe that deviating from the majority meant certain death

Creatures that attempted to face the universe alone rarely prosper in the long run.

However, in modern times, this is no longer the case.

We don't need a pack of other humans around us to help ward off tigers and mate with us (those who left the herd didn't pass on their genes like those who stayed). 

Unfortunately, our brains have yet to adapt to that new reality. We still equate conforming to the norms of the community with safety and disconforming with certain death.

Conforming to Norms

The only way to rise above pluralistic ignorance it is to be aware of it and actively work to see through it. 

Why Does It Matter for Entrepreneurs?

The good news is that entrepreneurs and marketers who can spot plurastic ignorance can tap into "blue oceans" of markets that others are over looking. 

For example, although most people might publicly claim to think that multi-level marketing isn't cheesy and gimmicky (which it usually is), they privately might believe the opposite. They might be saving face with their community.

"Entrepreneurs and marketers who can spot plurastic ignorance can tap into "blue oceans" of markets that others are over looking. 

Taking a stance against multi-level marketing might actually be less controversial than it seems and could potentially help you attract a larger audience. [This is just an example, I have no research showing how people feel about M.L.M.]

The good news however, people generally only stick to these norms when others are watching.

If we can isolate them and get honest feedback, we can better understand how to cater to the true majority OR at least identify an audience that is bigger than it might seem on the surface. An audience that is worth targeting that others will overlook. 

How to Defeat Pluralistic Ignorance

To truly understand what people want, we need to do the following. 

step 1

Ignore Surface Level Assumptions

The best entrepreneurs and marketers look deeper than what the naked eye might suggest. What appears to be the majority very often isn't.

step 2

Isolate and Survey

Pluralistic ignorance loses it's effect when you seperate individuals from the group. By getting private feedback from people in our target markets, we can get a better idea of people's true desires and values.

step 3

Never Stop Testing

Let everyone else follow what is obvious. Focus on what the data is actually telling you. Which products are converting? Which social posts are getting the most engagement? Try different things regularly and let the market show you want they want through their actions, not how they act when in a larger group. 

Becoming less suceptable to pluralistic ignorance will make the world a better place, but in the meantime, you might as well use your own understanding of it to become a better entrepreneur and marketer.

Let me know what you think in the comments!