Are you sick of the people around you doing their own thinking? Here's a psychological concept you can exploit. It's called pluralistic ignorance, and it ensures that everyone goes along with an idea that no one wanted in the first place.

Just occasionally, the world could do with a little more selfishness. Not in the Ayn Rand sense, but in the sense of speaking up and admitting one's likes and dislikes. A surprising percentage of the time, people will go along with ideas that make them uncomfortable. There are cases when they do it because they're afraid of retribution from some authority, but there are also times when people just don't want to admit to being the only one who disagrees with the crowd.

Things get ridiculous when not even the crowd wants to go along with the crowd. The most famous case of this happened at Princeton University in the 1990s. The place was dripping with alcohol - some of which had been vomited back up by students who had overindulged. Campus officials looked into the problem. So did psychologists Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller. They talked to the kids, and found out that, individually, the students agreed with the authorities. Most of them thought there was far too much alcohol use on campus. The problem was, most of them thought that everyone else thought the level of alcohol consumption was just right, and they didn't want to speak up.


The concept is called pluralistic ignorance. Everyone has private reservations, but everyone is convinced they're the only one. If you suspect that you're a victim of such a situation, there are work-arounds. Go to individuals and quietly ask them, as neutrally as possible, if they disagree with popular opinion. You may quietly form a movement.

Then again, maybe you don't want to eliminate pluralistic ignorance. Maybe you want to harness it to some evil purpose. Good for you! Dream big! Here's what you have to do. First, when you bring up your idea, make it sound like a well-established fact among the group. Let everyone believe that everyone else agrees, even if they're just hearing for the first time. Once your concept is established, do everything you can to combat private conferences. Make sure that, if people discuss your idea, they do it in groups large enough to inhibit them.


Lastly, make sure to include everyone. That way you don't just take advantage of people's ignorance, you change their standards. Prentice and Miller found that, over time, men grew to accept the massive amount of drinking at Princeton. Women grew alienated and resentful. The psychologists theorized that women could disengage because binge drinking was promoted as a kind of masculine activity. Male students were celebrated as men if they drank. They grew to identify with big drinkers. Women turned away. So, if you want to promote a concept that no one likes, make sure to give everyone a chance to feel big by complying.

[Via Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus.]