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Pluralistic ignorance among student–athlete populations: a factor in academic underperformance

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It is well documented that student–athletes underperform academically. Some researchers have suggested that this underperformance is because student–athletes lack motivation in academic endeavors. In contrast, we find that most student–athletes hold positive private attitudes towards academic achievement, but also believe that their peers do not. In order to fit in, athletes conform to the perceived (but false) social norm in their public behaviors, thus undermining their academic performance and simultaneously reinforcing the (false) social norm for the rest of their team. This pluralistic ignorance suggests that different interventions will be needed to solve the problem than are typically proposed.

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  1. Data was also collected regarding the perceived values of coaches, parents, and society, but as they are not relevant to the question at hand they are beyond the scope of the present paper. Details on the results from these questions are available from the authors by request.

  2. Although it would suggest a much broader problem in regard to academic achievement that would perhaps necessitate other forms of interventions.

  3. As in Study 1, additional questions beyond the scope of this paper were collected. These were regarding the perceived values of mentors in the program (e.g. orchestra conductors) and perceptions about the value of athletics. Details on the results of these questions are available from the authors by request.

  4. Due to small sample sizes when the population is broken down by year, it is hard to interpret this result. It could be that the longer students partake in the activity, the more acculturated to the norms they become. It could also be a statistical artifact due to sample sizes.

  5. Participants in the control condition were asked to explain pluralistic ignorance about the extent to which teenagers have conflicts with their parents (instead of athletes’ values about academics). Because the intervention was unsuccessful, we do not burden the reader here with the full details of the study or the results, but those details are available from the authors upon request.


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Correspondence to Daniel. M. Oppenheimer.

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Levine, J., Etchison, S. & Oppenheimer, D.M. Pluralistic ignorance among student–athlete populations: a factor in academic underperformance. High Educ 68, 525–540 (2014).

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