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June 19, 2020  |  Friday words #225  |  6392 hit(s)

Imagine that there's a big family reunion and you're charged with making dinner arrangements. You book a room at that Italian place you always go to. It's not your favorite by a long shot, but it's the one that everyone likes. After dinner, though, you're talking to some of your cousins, and you find out that actually hardly anyone likes that place. But you've all been going there because people thought everyone else really liked it.

This is a situation described by a term I learned this week: pluralistic ignorance. This is the idea that you think many others in the group hold different beliefs than you do. As one article puts it, it's the difference between actual norms in the group (what people really think) and perceived norms (what we believe others in the group think). Or to put it more succinctly, "When group members conform to what they think others want, they may end up doing what nobody wants." (The Wikipedia article on pluralistic ignorance cites the story of the Emperor's New Clothes as an example.)

Pluralistic ignorance can have unimportant consequences, like where the family goes for dinner. But it's often negative: in a group, it can prevent people from speaking up—for example, to ask a question, because they wrongly imagine that everyone else already knows the answer. It can lead people to believe that they're "different" and lead to things like impostor syndrome.

I think (I don't remember now) that I ran across this term while reading about the recent protests. The protests unmasked some pluralistic ignorance; when the protests turned out so big, many people discovered a heretofore unsuspected number of their friends and neighbors who thought like they do. Even support for an unpopular political candidate is subject to pluralistic ignorance; arguably, it helps explain the difference between the predictions and the outcome of the 2016 US election.

Surely one result of the internet is that it can help overcome pluralistic ignorance—you might think your views represent a small minority, but you can learn that there are others who think like you do. Maybe not in your family, or classroom, or workplace, or neighborhood, but Out There, at least.

For origins, a word whose history I learned from Edward Banatt on Twitter: reluctant. There are almost no words in English that are related, which is why it's not obvious what it means. Some spelunking in the OED learns me that there was a verb, now obsolete, to reluct, which meant "to fight against." This begins to reveal the story.

The re- prefix is "against." And the -luct part is part of Latin reluctari, meaning "to struggle against, resist." Like, I'm reluctant about (i.e., struggle against) getting out of bed in the morning.

As I say, there aren't English cognates readily at hand. But there are some in other Latin-derived languages. For example, the luct stem shows up in Spanish as luchar, "to fight." Are you a fan of the Mexican sport-theater known as lucha libre? Well, those fighters are—heh, heh—very reluctant. Get it?

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Julian   22 Jun 20 - 2:06 AM

I know 'pluralistic ignorance' as the Abilene Paradox. Wikipedia explains it.

mike   22 Jun 20 - 9:00 AM

Thanks for your comment. Someone on Facebook mentioned this also, and I'd never heard of it either! It sounds like a lot of people do know about the Abilene paradox, tho.