Pluralistic ignorance and the last best hope
In Tyler Hamilton’s 2012 book The Secret Race (written with Daniel Coyle), the cyclist exposes the most sophisticated doping program in the history of sports, orchestrated by Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner now stripped of his titles after a thorough investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Hamilton shows how such an elaborate system was maintained through the “omertà rule”—the code of silence that leads one to believe everyone else believes doping is the norm—and reinforced by the threat of punishment for speaking out or not complying.
The broader psychological principle at work here is “pluralistic ignorance,” in which individual members of a group do not believe something but mistakenly believe everyone else in the group believes it. When no one speaks up, it produces a “spiral of silence” that can lead to everything from binge drinking and hooking up to witch hunts and deadly ideologies. A 1998 study by Christine M. Schroeder and Deborah A. Prentice, for example, found that “the majority of students believe that their peers are uniformly more comfortable with campus alcohol practices than they are.” Another study in 1993 by Prentice and Dale T. Miller found a gender difference in drinking attitudes in which “male students shifted their attitudes over time in the direction of what they mistakenly believed to be the norm, whereas female students showed no such attitude change.” Women, however, were not immune to pluralistic ignorance when it comes to hooking up, as shown in a 2003 study by Tracy A. Lambert and her colleagues, who found “both women and men rated their peers as being more comfortable engaging in these behaviors than they rated themselves.” (continue reading…)