Post by Dr Adrian Davis, Professor of Transport & Health, Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University
Pluralistic ignorance is alive and thriving. So, what is it? In studies, researcher have found that on many topics of public importance people hold inaccurate perceptions of others’ opinions. This contributes to self-silencing among those concerned about such issues (i.e. pluralistic ignorance). This can then result in opponents of pro-environment/health interventions continuing to claim that their unfounded views are true and have majority support. On transport and the environment issues pluralistic ignorance has been shown with regards a range of topics including support for 20mph speed limits, action on air pollution, as well as on climate change.
This is a phenomenon commonly found across many areas of public policy e.g. support for racial segregation in the 1970s (most white Americans supported desegregation but believed that most others supported segregation); norms of alcohol consumption (university students believing that norms of alcohol consumption were excessive but perceived that most others supported them). One of the causes of pluralistic ignorance is that individuals believe the opinions of outspoken group members reflect the opinions of most others in the group . In cases where the most outspoken people hold an opinion only shared by a minority within the group, group members may get the false impression that most others hold the minority opinion in question.
By way of further example, in 2016 the Common Cause Foundation reported on a national survey they undertook to explore what a typical UK Citizen values . They found that 74% of people report caring about compassionate values more than selfish values. This isn’t to suggest that selfish values, such as wealth and social status, are unimportant to most people: at some level, they are important to almost everyone. But their results corroborate earlier surveys of UK citizens in showing that most people place greater importance on compassionate values than on selfish values. However, and typical of pluralistic ignorance, the survey results revealled that most UK citizens (77%) underestimate the importance that a typical British person attaches to compassionate values while also overestimating the importance that a typical British person attaches to selfish values. In other words, people tend to assume that a typical fellow citizen has a lower adjusted compassionate value score than is actually the case. When interviewed after completion of the survey, the researchers found that many participants perceived a gap between their own values and those of typical fellow citizens.
Work we have undertaken at UWE Bristol on aspects of transport attitudes and behaviours has found that pluralistic ignorance exists around majority support for 20mph speed limits in communities. Despite representative sample surveys showing 65-70% majority support for 20mph in local communities across Great Britain, when asked whether most people in the country support 20 mph limits, we found a larger percentage of adults disagreed than agreed that there was support with a resulting consequent ‘spiral of silence’ .
Spirals of silence is self-silencing and it may be a form of impression management. Individuals desire to be viewed in a positive light and sharing an unpopular opinion could result in others perceiving them negatively. The desire to avoid being disliked has also been well established as a motive for self-silencing when one is a target of discrimination and prejudice. Researchers have thus proposed that people self-silence because of fear of isolation . Thus, a majority of concerned individuals are inhibited from taking climate action, out of fear of deviating from a misperceived social norm. Pluralistic ignorance leads to self-silencing because perceptions that others do not share one’s opinion are associated with expecting to be perceived as less competent in a conversation. One way to promote discussion is to correct pluralistic ignorance, informing those with inaccurate perceptions of others’ opinions that a majority do share their concerns.
Encouragingly, research also finds those who are aware of others’ concern about climate change report greater willingness to discuss the issue than those with inaccurate perceptions of others’ opinions. However, the effects of pluralistic ignorance is promoting public silence on the socially relevant topic of climate change . Among students, survey respondents who did not themselves doubt climate change were less willing to discuss the topic when they inaccurately believed fellow students would not share their opinion than when they accurately perceived they were in the majority. The reason individuals are more willing to discuss climate change when they perceive that others agree is because they expected to be respected more (i.e., appear more competent). In the US, while 66–80% Americans support these policies, Americans estimate the prevalence to only be between 37–43% on average .
To create serious movement, not least on climate change, we must dispel the myth of indifference. Pluralistic ignorance is often a barrier to discussions. This barrier can be removed by informing those with inaccurate perceptions of others’ opinions that a majority do share their concerns.
 Shamir, J., Shamir, M. 1997 Pluralistic ignorance across issues and over time. Public Opinion Quarterly, 61: 227 – 260.
 Common Cause Foundation, 2016 Perceptions Matter. The Common Cause UK Values Survey.
 Tapp. A. et al, 2016 Vicious or virtuous circles? Exploring the vulnerability of drivers to break low urban speed limits, Transportation Research Part A, 91: 195-212.
 Holoien, D., Fiske, S. 2013 Downplaying positive impressions: compensation between warmth and competence in impression management, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1): 33-41.
 Geiger, N., Swim, J. 2016 Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 47, 79-90.
 Sparkman, G., Geiger, N. Weber, E.U. 2022 Americans experience a false social reality by underestimating popular climate policy support by nearly half. Nature Communications 13, 4779.