On the rationality of pluralistic ignorance


Pluralistic ignorance is a socio-psychological phenomenon that involves a systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs and public behavior in certain social contexts. Recently, pluralistic ignorance has gained increased attention in formal and social epistemology. But to get clear on what precisely a formal and social epistemological account of pluralistic ignorance should look like, we need answers to at least the following two questions: What exactly is the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance? And can the phenomenon arise among perfectly rational agents? In this paper, we propose answers to both these questions. First, we characterize different versions of pluralistic ignorance and define the version that we claim most adequately captures the examples cited as paradigmatic cases of pluralistic ignorance in the literature. In doing so, we will stress certain key epistemic and social interactive aspects of the phenomenon. Second, given our characterization of pluralistic ignorance, we argue that the phenomenon can indeed arise in groups of perfectly rational agents. This, in turn, ensures that the tools of formal epistemology can be fully utilized to reason about pluralistic ignorance.

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  1. 1.

    The Copenhagen Lund workshop series on social epistemology, for instance, has taken pluralistic ignorance as one of its four focus cases (Hendricks et al. 2012).

  2. 2.

    Although there are examples of phenomena that resemble pluralistic ignorance in the literature before the work of Allport and Katz, they are not referred to by the term “pluralistic ignorance” (O’Gorman 1986). For more on the genealogy of the term, see O’Gorman (1986) and Halbesleben and Buckley (2004).

  3. 3.

    Miller and McFarland (1987) have studied and documented this type of pluralistic ignorance in classrooms. Miller and McFarland (1991) claims that “[...] pluralistic ignorance occurs in this situation because students believe that fear of embarrassment is influencing their behavior more than the behavior of the other students” (Miller and McFarland 1991, p. 298).

  4. 4.

    This case is inspired by the extensive studies in social psychology of the drinking habits among college students and the influence that peers have on these habits (Borsari and Carey 2001). Prentice and Miller (1993) report on four studies of alcohol consumptions among students at Princeton, each of which documented the presence of the following phenomenon on campus: the students believed that the average student was much more comfortable with alcohol than they were themselves. In this sense, it was documented that the alcohol norm on campus differed considerably from the students’ private attitudes about alcohol consumption.

  5. 5.

    As we shall see in due course, this fictional case is useful for making certain conceptual points about the nature of pluralistic ignorance.

  6. 6.

    For the purposes of this paper, we characterize situations of pluralistic ignorance in terms of a discrepancy between private and public beliefs. But note that other attitudes could in principle be used to characterize pluralistic ignorance. For instance, several characterizations of pluralistic ignorance involve attitudes towards norms rather than beliefs about propositions. According to Centola et al. (2005), “[p]luralistic ignorance describes a situation where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but assume (incorrectly) that most others accept it” (Centola et al. 2005, p. 1010). As suggested by footnote 4, the College Drinking Case can naturally be reformulated as involving norms rather than beliefs. However, since nothing substantial in our discussion hangs on the difference between “having a belief about a proposition” and “having an attitude towards a norm”, we will work with the first locution in what follows.

  7. 7.

    According to Centola et al. (2005), a minority can also cause pluralistic ignorance in a social network with the right structure through informational cascading effects—a concept first introduced by Bikhchandani et al. (1992). In Centola et al. (2005), pluralistic ignorance is modeled using agent-based models—more specifically, using two-dimensional cellular automata representing the social network. They make the implicit assumption that agents form beliefs about other agents’ private attitudes towards a given norm by observing whether the neighboring agents comply with the norm and whether they enforce it. Based on such observations, the agents themselves decide whether to comply with the norm and enforce it. Insofar as a minority of agents strongly support a perhaps highly unpopular norm, their model shows how such a norm can spread throughout the network in cascading effects—much like chain reactions—and result in convergence on the unpopular norm. Note that Miller and McFarland (1991) denies that cases of minority influence lead to cases of pluralistic ignorance in general: “Pluralistic ignorance is a state of uniqueness that arises when individuals misinterpret the similar behavior of similar others, not when they generalize inappropriately from the dissimilar behavior of dissimilar (unrepresentative) others” (Miller and McFarland 1991, p. 296).

  8. 8.

    In their study, Prentice and Miller (1993) found evidence that male students adopted the first strategy and internalized the drinking norm seemingly supported by the group, whereas female students adopted the third strategy and alienated themselves from the group.

  9. 9.

    For an overview of the ramifications of pluralistic ignorance in management and organizations, see Halbesleben et al. (2007) and Halbesleben and Buckley (2004). An example of pluralistic ignorance in organization theory is found in Westphal and Bednar (2005) where, “[...] under conditions of low performance, there may be a systematic tendency for outside directors to underestimate the extent to which fellow directors share their concerns about the viability of the firm’s corporate strategy” (Westphal and Bednar 2005, p. 262).

  10. 10.

    Prentice and Miller have adopted this definition from Miller and McFarland (1991) who state a very similar definition.

  11. 11.

    According to Statistics Denmark, \(89 \%\) of Danes in the age 16–19 had a Facebook profile in 2010 (Danmarks Statistik 2011, p. 26, Tabel 7).

  12. 12.

    As Miller and McFarland (1991) say, “the victims of pluralistic ignorance are not observers, they are participants in the group dynamic who know that their own behavior belies their internal state and cannot be taken at face value” (Miller and McFarland 1991, p. 297).

  13. 13.

    We assume that the meaning of the phrases “acting as if \(P\)” and “acting contrary to one’s belief about \(P\)” are sufficiently clear. We are aware, however, that on some occasions it can be non-trivial to determine whether an action is for or against a given proposition. An agent may, for instance, find it difficult to decode by observation which action an agent is seemingly performing, or he may misinterpret the other agent’s action. Nevertheless, we will bracket such issues since our main points do not rely on these finer details. Like us, note that (Bicchieri (2006), ch. 5) also stresses the importance of conditions similar to (iii) and (iv) in discussing the emergence of pluralistic ignorance. Unlike us, however, Bicchieri does not engage in a detailed discussion of the proper definition of pluralistic ignorance, and eventually she adopts a definition similar to the one in Prentice and Miller (1993).

  14. 14.

    Of course, we may go on to extend the stories in Example 3 and 4 in various ways to include interaction and observations among the freshmen and the young Danes. And such extensions could lead to cases ofpluralistic ignorance—Example 3 could turn into the College Drinking Case, for instance—but they need not.

  15. 15.

    For more on the distinction between pragmatic and epistemic rationality, see, e.g., Christensen (2004).

  16. 16.

    Interestingly, however, such cascades need not arise in social networks where everyone is connected.

  17. 17.

    Public announcement logics are simple versions of dynamic epistemic logic where only one type of epistemic action, namely public announcement, is considered.


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First of all, we would like to thank Carlo Proietti and Frank Zenker for organizing the CPH-LU workshops on social epistemology. We would also like to thank the participants of the CPH-LU workshops in Lund and Copenhagen and the participants of the LIRa/LogiCIC seminar at ILLC for useful comments and suggestions. We benefited especially from discussions on the topic with Carlo Proietti, Rasmus Rendsvig, and Vincent Hendricks. Finally, we would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for useful comments and suggestions.Jens Ulrik Hansen is sponsored by the Carlsberg Foundation.

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Bjerring, J.C., Hansen, J.U. & Pedersen, N.J.L.L. On the rationality of pluralistic ignorance. Synthese 191, 2445–2470 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0434-1

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  • Pluralistic ignorance
  • Epistemic rationality
  • Social behavior
  • Rational interaction
  • Private beliefs
  • Public beliefs