By Sarah Vander Schaaff

As parents, we often talk about peer pressure, but how often to we talk about the effects of pluralistic ignorance? It doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? But, it’s worth knowing about and perhaps even adding to our conversations.

I didn’t know anything about pluralistic ignorance until I heard an evolutionary biologist speaking on the radio last week. He was discussing the “hook-up” culture of young people. An individual may not particularly think “hooking-up” is the type of relationship pattern he wants to have, the biologist said, but pluralistic ignorance drives him to conform to what’s perceived as the norm others have embraced.

How many individuals within the group actually like the norm? That’s the interesting part, because it may be everyone is doing something that no one actually wants to do.

I asked a few of the psychologists at Mindprint about the notion of pluralistic ignorance and one mentioned the work done at Princeton University in relation to alcohol.

The studies she mentioned were done back in the 1990’s, certainly before Facebook and smartphones redefined the college experience, but at a time when drinking on campuses was ubiquitous, as many of us who were in college at the time might have noticed.

“Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm,” was written by Deborah A. Prentice and Dale T. Miller and published in the Journal of Personality and Psychology in 1993. I’ll leave it to my esteemed colleagues to interpret the statistics and charts, but the gist of the study is important: college students overestimated the comfort level they believed others had with drinking. They assumed their peers were more comfortable with the behavior than they were.

After conducting four studies of Princeton undergrads, the authors said the consequences of pluralistic ignorance regarding alcohol use for male students were clear:

“When they perceived their attitudes to be different from the normative attitudes of their group, men showed signs of alienation and responded to their perceived deviance by changing their attitudes in the direction of the norm.” In this case, it meant an increase in comfort level with alcohol drinking and even a change in behavior.

The authors continued:

“For women, the pattern of results was more anomalous: They showed signs of alienation when they perceived their attitudes to be deviant, but did not respond by moving towards the norm. Indeed, if anything, they appeared to grow more alienated over time.”

It’s interesting to note that the study was done twenty years ago, with the authors explaining that men composed the majority on campus. Today, according the university website, women are represented in equal numbers.

So does educating students about their own pluralistic ignorance help? A later study done by Christine M. Schroeder at Princeton seemed to show that it did:

“Entering students (freshmen) participated in either a peer-oriented discussion, which focused on pluralistic ignorance, or an individual-oriented discussion, which focused on decision making in a drinking situation.”

When researchers followed up months later, they found that the students who were part of the peer-oriented condition reported, “drinking significantly less than did students in the individual-oriented condition.”

I’m not a psychologist, but it seems logical to think that our kids are making judgments about group behavior in intensified ways thanks to social media.

“Everybody’s doing it,” may be an explanation for so many things in their lives.

But the question may be: but does everybody want to? And that is when you might want to try saying pluralistic ignorance five times fast.

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