The following post is from WaitButWhy.com author Tim Urban.
Like a lot of what Tim writes, I think it is genius. Well worth five minutes
Psychologists use a term called “pluralistic ignorance” to describe the phenomenon of “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.” Here’s a way to visualize it:
Imagine a group of people who hold a wide variety of viewpoints on a certain topic. We can represent what each person thinks with a brain—the color of the brain represents their viewpoint. This is what a rich diversity of thinking looks like:
Now let’s put a circle around each brain. The color of the circle represents what each person is saying about the topic. When everyone is saying what they’re really thinking, the circle matches the brain, allowing the brains to talk to each other. The group forms a superbrain.
But now imagine that the people who believe the orange viewpoint start saying that anyone who disagrees with orange is a bad person. No one wants to seem like a bad person, so everyone starts pretending they agree with the orange opinion, even though they don’t.
The thing is, people can’t actually see the color of anyone’s brain. The only way people know what’s going on in the heads of others is through discourse, and now that everyone is saying they agree with orange, this is all anyone sees when they look around.
So if you’re this person, who secretly disagrees with orange – –
– – despite the fact that MOST people secretly disagree with orange, you just assume that everyone else must agree with orange. You imagine the inside of everyone’s heads looking like this:
And that’s what everyone else thinks too, so no one wants to admit how they really feel about orange. When people are scared to say what they really think, brains are cut off from each other and stuck pondering the topic alone in their heads. Group intelligence vanishes.
Some people continue to believe orange is wrong, but they keep quiet or open up only with close friends. But others start to assume, because everyone is saying orange is right, that it must be so. They start to believe everyone who disagrees with orange must be a bad person. Eventually this takes on a life of its own and starts reinforcing itself, as lots of people will now attack anyone who disagrees with orange. This can keep things going for a long time.
But the emperor has no clothes, and orange’s stranglehold is more tenuous than it seems. If only one brave person starts to say “I think orange is wrong,” they will probably be squashed by the orange zealots. But other people will hear them, and it chips away at the idea that “everyone but me thinks orange.” It helps more people to start being courageous and say what they really think, and soon a tipping point is crossed and the entire charade falls like a house of cards. Punishing non-orange people quickly goes out of fashion, and people again feel safe being themselves, publicly.
When you feel alone in what you think, remind yourself how common pluralistic ignorance is. If you find the courage to be yourself, you might learn that you’re not alone at all.