Saturday: Pluralistic ignorance and thresholds

Publish Date: 
Sat, 04/16/2011 - 14:48

This post comes partly from a conversation with Todd Parsons.

At the Dushoff lab we've been poring over Bicchieri's fascinating book for a while, looking to understand her theory of social norms better. In particular, I'm wondering about unpopular social norms and how they come to be abandoned for better ones. The key to this in Bicchieri's work is pluralistic ignorance.

The individuals in the previous examples were experiencing what social psychologists call pluralistic ignorance, a psychological state characterized by the belief that ones private thoughts, attitudes, and feelings are different from those of others, even though ones public behavior is identical (Allport 1924; Miller and McFarland 1991). Perhaps the term 'ignorance' is not the most appropriate, as the individuals concerned seem to make systematic mistakes in judging the motives, and hence the attitudes and beliefs, of other people. Their judgments are guided by what they observe, and indeed, observability is always a feature of the contexts in which pluralistic ignorance arises. The problem with such judgments is that individuals wrongly infer that, unlike themselves, others must be thinking and feeling the way they are acting. (Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society, p. 186)

One way to connect pluralistic ignorance to Granovetter-style threshold models is like this: if someone acts in the way dictated by a social norm, but because of their own preferences, their threshold should be zero, because they would do it regardless of others. If they follow the norm because it is the norm, their threshold should be higher, because if it were abandoned they would not do it. If conformity is high, one can observe that people are doing it but can't directly observe their thresholds. If 90% of the community consistently conforms, one can only infer that those people's thresholds are no higher than 90%.

If we assume that the norm is unpopular, it follows that a lot of people would prefer not to conform, that is that their thresholds are high. If it is unpopular enough, there is a low-conformity equilibrium (there needs to be a sufficient number of low thresholds to prevent a low equilibrium). If people knew that a low equilibrium existed, they could coordinate to quit the behavior together and switch to that equilibrium (how?).

Pluralistic ignorance - thinking that others do it because of personal preference - translates to thinking that their thresholds are low when they are actually high. This belief implies the belief that there isn't a low-conformity equilibrium, and in this way can prevent people from abandoning the norm. A public discussion, or something else that reveals people's preferences, can break them out of this trap.

But note Bicchieri's comment on her cascade model:

The important conclusion we draw is that unpopular or dysfunctional norms may emerge and survive even in the presence of a huge, silent majority of dissenters. They refrain from open defiance because of social pressures they themselves help to sustain through actions that stem from pluralistic ignorance. But it may take surprisingly little new public information to reverse the original cascade. Interestingly enough, we need not assume much about the sources of such information. It would be a mistake to suppose that only the actions of a 'subversive' minority or the availability of public information about what most people really think (or like) can be expected to generate sudden and unexpected changes in well-established norms. Deviant behavior may occur for many other reasons, and it may well be unintended. What matters is that it may take very few observations to convince people to change their behavior in the direction of what they truly prefer.

1 comment

by PeEseeDewalem on Wed, 07/13/2011 - 13:18

Yes, really.

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