Gretchen worked in a factory that produced material used in filters for automobiles, air conditioners, and other items where filters were necessary to trap dust particles. The filters were made by winding a fine filament around a drum to form a mat. While the filament was being wound on the drum, a binder was sprayed on the drum to help keep the filament in place as the mat was formed. The mat was then stretched in multiple directions to form the filter.
What Gretchen noticed was that the employees in the factory had an uncommon level of coughing and chronic respiratory issues. Gretchen wondered about the binder so she did a search and found the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The MSDS listed the binder as a suspected carcinogen.
Gretchen’s first impulse was to alert the plant management about the problem, but on second thought, she chose not to speak up. She perceived that speaking up would make her an outcast. The company continued to use the binder for years.
When the community had an unexplained level of lung cancer cases, the local university was asked to investigate. The binder was identified as the problem, and the company was forced to change the binder it used.
At a subsequent union meeting, the employees started talking about the binder and the health effects that all of them faced. It turned out that Gretchen wasn’t alone in her earlier concern. In fact, over half of the employees had done what Gretchen had done. They found out the binder could cause cancer but chose not to speak out because they worried about being an outcast. What’s at work here?
It’s a phenomenon that social psychologists give an evil sounding name: pluralistic ignorance. Basically, it’s when we mistakenly believe that we are in the minority when our beliefs are actually widely shared by others. As a consequence, we vastly underestimate the support for what we believe–something we would learn if we actually spoke up.
Often, we are afraid to speak up because we don’t want to be embarrassed, singled out, or excluded from our peer groups. This is one reason that polls of public opinion are often misleading. Are the polls measuring what we actually believe, or what we think that others believe? The result can be that we don’t get a true reflection of public sentiment.
Just imagine how pluralistic ignorance can affect society. Might it have prolonged the Jim Crow policies of the South? Might it be the reason we don’t take action on climate change or gun violence? How might social media be accelerating the problem? Could it help explain why the extreme positions of some political candidates seem to be popular? How do we build a society where people are empowered to speak up in the face of wrongdoing? How do we help people see that if they do find the courage to speak up, they may very well find they are not alone?
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“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.