Not too long ago, I briefly met Elizabeth Warren in a restaurant in Cambridge, near Harvard, where I’m now a postdoc in psychology. My dad and I saw the Massachusetts senator, a 2020 presidential candidate, walking in as we were walking out. “Give ’em hell,” my dad told the senator, harkening back to Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign. She laughed. “That’s what I do!”
Last summer, in a New York Times article about Warren, a voter stated, “I love her enthusiasm. She’s smart, she’s very smart. I think she would make an amazing president,” before adding, “I’m worried about whether she can win.”1 The voter’s sentiment is reflected in a 2019 poll in which 74 percent of Democrats said they would be comfortable with a female president, yet only 33 percent of them thought their neighbors felt the same way.2
Pluralistic ignorance stymied friendship among black and white students.
Last week in the Iowa caucus primary, Warren placed third behind Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Could Warren’s political fate in 2020 turn on voters who think she would make a great president choosing another candidate because they think that’s what their neighbors will do? I’m inclined to say yes because of a social psychological concept called pluralistic ignorance.
Pluralistic ignorance is a discrepancy between one’s privately held beliefs and public behavior. It occurs when people assume that the identical actions of themselves and others reflect different underlying states. The term has been in circulation for nearly 80 years, though more recent experiments have made it a focal point of social psychology.
In the 1990s, psychologists Debra Prentice and Dale Miller conducted a series of studies at Princeton University. They aimed to address a major campus issue: alcohol consumption. At the time, Princeton was notorious for its practices around alcohol. Princeton reunions were second only to the Indy 500 for most alcohol consumed in a single event. Strong pro-alcohol norms were deeply ingrained in campus life. But Prentice and Miller wondered whether the story was more complicated. They suspected that students secretly harbored misgivings about drinking, but were going along with what seemed popular among their peers.
To test this idea, Prentice and Miller administered a two-question survey to students. On the first question, students indicated how comfortable they themselves felt with alcohol, using a scale from 1 (not at all comfortable) to 11 (very comfortable). On the second question, they indicated how comfortable the average Princeton student was with alcohol using the same scale. Findings confirmed Prentice and Miller’s intuitions: Princeton undergraduates reported that they were far less comfortable with alcohol than their peers. The average rating for one’s own comfort with alcohol was a 5.3. The rating for the average student’s comfort with alcohol was just above 7. In other words, perceived comfort with alcohol was much higher than actual comfort with alcohol. At Princeton, campus drinking norms were perpetuated by pluralistic ignorance.3
Over a decade later, psychologists Nicole Shelton and Jennifer Richeson examined whether pluralistic ignorance stymied friendship among black and white college students. They designed an experiment that asked students to imagine approaching a group of people from a different race in a dining hall. Results showed both groups of students wanted to have more contact with each other, but erroneously thought the other group didn’t want to have contact with them. In subsequent studies, Shelton and Richeson documented the real consequences of this miscalculation among Princeton students. They found that people who endorsed divergent explanations for their own actions and the identical actions of racial outgroup members had less contact with people of different races in their daily lives. Pluralistic ignorance deterred Princeton students of different races from interacting with each other.4
Of course, pluralistic ignorance doesn’t only exist on the Princeton campus. In the workplace, pluralistic ignorance fosters reluctance among men to take new parent leave. In one study, male employees overestimated the extent to which other men held negative attitudes toward paternity leave. This miscalculation affected their own willingness to take leave; men who thought they felt more positively about leave than their peers were disinclined to take it, even though they wanted to.5
Can dispelling pluralistic ignorance convince voters to trust their gut?
Similarly, pluralistic ignorance appears to stifle reporting of sexual harassment. A 2009 study presented participants with packets of sexist jokes and asked them to indicate how comfortable they were with the jokes relative to their peers. Participants who thought their peers felt more comfortable with the jokes than they did were less likely to report feeling offended.6 Scientists have also shown that pluralistic ignorance can curb efforts to address climate change. A recent set of studies from Penn State suggests that people concerned about climate change—the majority of participants in the experiments—were not willing to discuss it when they thought others did not share their concern, creating a “climate of silence” around the pressing issue.7
This misperception of peers’ thoughts and desires—in this case, misperception of what other voters think and will do—is what Warren’s campaign appears to be facing. A host of polls and analyses have shown that voters commonly refrain from voting for women because they think other voters don’t believe they can win. A summer poll from Avalanche Strategy presented Democratic voters two questions. First it asked them for whom they would vote if the primary election were held today. Former vice president Joe Biden took first place, Sanders was second, and Warren was third. Then it asked them whom they would choose if they had “a magic wand and can make any of the candidates president—they don’t have to beat anyone or win the election.” On this question, Warren was first.8
Nate Silver, editor of FiveThirtyEight, reflected on these data in a blog post. “Being a woman was the biggest barrier to electability, based on Avalanche’s analysis of the results, and women were more likely to cite gender as a factor than men,” Silver wrote. “So there are a lot of women who might not vote for a woman because they’re worried that other voters won’t vote for her. But if everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!”9
A key factor of voters’ misperceptions is the concept of “electability.” They think women candidates are less electable than men. But there is a problem with this concept: electability is a noisy construct, especially during a presidential election. Analysts have repeatedly pointed out that “unelectable” candidates have included Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.10 What happens when voters subscribe to the electability strategy?
Regina Bateson—a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who left her tenure-track job at MIT to run for congressional office in 2017—tackled this question in a recent experiment. She conducted a study in which she asked nearly 2,000 Americans about the electability of hypothetical political candidates. These mock candidates were identical on every dimension except for gender and race. Bateson found that participants most often rated a candidate as “very electable” when the candidate was a white man, but less frequently when the candidate was a woman or person of color. In this study, white men were seen as significantly more electable than white women and women of color.11
But demographic advantages for white males may not be as robust as people think. A study of 2018 elections by the Reflective Democracy Campaign (a project of the Women Donors Network examining demographics in American politics) found that in 2018, women and people of color won elections at the same rates as white men. This study examined some 34,000 candidates at the federal, state, and county levels.12
“Once they’re on the general election ballot, candidates from all demographic groups won their elections at essentially the same rates. Overall, female candidates, regardless of race, are actually slightly more successful than male candidates,” Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, told me. These findings are consistent with previous studies, suggesting that women and people of color win at the same rates as (and sometimes higher rates than) white men, but white men are seen as more electable.13, 14
Can being made aware of faulty perceptions spur a change in behavior? Prentice, who conducted the seminal studies in pluralistic ignorance, wanted to find out. In particular, she wondered what would happen when Princeton students were made aware of how their peers actually felt about alcohol.
In 1998, Prentice and her colleague Christine Schroeder conducted an experiment in which incoming Princeton freshmen were randomly assigned to participate in one of two alcohol education programs. One program (the control program) was designed to mimic traditional alcohol education for new college students. It facilitated discussions among freshmen about how to make responsible personal decisions in a drinking situation. The other program was an intervention directly addressing pluralistic ignorance. Specifically, Schroeder and Prentice showed this group their data from the previous experiment. These students saw how far off their undergraduate peers were in estimating people’s actual comfort with alcohol. Approximately five months later, students in the pluralistic ignorance program reported drinking less than students in the control program. Dispelling their pluralistic ignorance licensed them to trust their gut, which motivated them to make safer choices around alcohol.15
Can dispelling pluralistic ignorance around electability convince people to trust their gut and vote for the candidate they want, not the candidate they think others want? I don’t have the answers. But I do know that evidence from research on pluralistic ignorance demonstrates that we’re often wrong in our assumptions about what others are thinking and feeling. That knowledge certainly has the power to influence what we do in the voting booth.
Erika Weisz is a postdoctoral researcher in Psychology at Harvard University. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 2018. Her research explores how to use social psychological techniques to encourage people to empathize with one another.
3. Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64 (2), 243–256.
4. Shelton, J. N., & Richeson, J. A. (2005). Intergroup contact and pluralistic ignorance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (1), 91–107. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11
5. Miyajima, T., & Yamaguchi, H. (2017). I want to but I won’t: Pluralistic ignorance inhibits intentions to take paternity leave in Japan. Frontiers in Psychology, 8 (SEP), 1–12.
6. Halbesleben, J. R. B. (2009). The role of pluralistic ignorance in the reporting of sexual harassment. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31(3), 210–217.
7. Geiger, N., & Swim, J. K. (2016). Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 47, 79–90.
11. Bateson, R. Strategic Discrimination. Manuscript under review.
12. Reflective Democracy Campaign. 2019. “The Electability Myth: The Shifting Demographics of Political Power in America.” June. https://wholeads.us/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/The-Electability-Myth-_-The-Shifting-Demographics-of-Political-Power-In-America-8-1-19.pdf
13. Lawless, Jennifer L. and Kathryn Pearson. (2008). The Primary Reason for Women’s Underrepresentation? Reevaluating the Conventional Wisdom. Journal of Politics, 70 (1): 67-82.
14. Anastasopoulos, L. (2016). Estimating the gender penalty in House of Representatives elections using a regression discontinuity design. Electoral Studies 43: 150-157.
15. Schroeder, C.M. and Prentice, D.A. (1998). Exposing pluralistic ignorance to reduce alcohol use among college students. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 28, 2150–2180