This post is also available in Dutch.
Let’s stick with these lockdown parties as an example. Imagine this: You’re a student and live with five to ten others in one house. Your roommates aren’t all that worried about the virus (after all, they’re young and healthy) and make elaborate plans to go nuts the coming weekend. What’s more, your university has closed down, so they might as well start the party on Wednesday.
You don’t really feel comfortable – the news warns you about doomsday scenarios and you’re afraid that you’re going to infect your parents – but because no one else seems to have any issues, you just go along with the plan. If you’re the only one with such doubts, it’s probably not that bad, right? Maybe you shouldn’t worry all that much. Besides, you’re never sick anyways.
Odds are, you’re not the only one with this mindset. In fact, if we were to ask everyone in such a student house what they think of these parties, the majority would probably not feel comfortable about them.
The reason that many students nevertheless organise parties is simple: Everyone thinks they are the only one to struggle with the prevailing social norm (‘we’re just going to party’) and de-values their own opinions. This phenomenon is called pluralistic ignorance in social psychology.
Ignorance all around
Now, you might think that this type of ignorance occurs only under exceptional circumstances, but you’d be mistaken! This phenomenon happens across a wide range of situations, and explains not only why people talk in the silent compartments of trains or why members of student associations partake in binge drinking, but also why people support totalitarian regimes and racial segregation, and the lack of action against climate change.
The fact that individuals are inclined to suppress their own opinions if they (mistakenly!) suspect they are alone in disagreeing with the social norm, can cause entire societies to act in ways that almost no one supports.
How to prevent herd behaviour?
Alright, so how do we prevent ourselves from getting carried away with our incorrect assumptions about the current social norm? The solution is very simple: Speak up.
Would you prefer that you and your friends to continue your discussion about last weekend outside of the silent compartment? Suggest it. Or do you think your colleagues are making inappropriate comments during work meetings? Address it. Communication is also the answer now: Do you think it’s irresponsible to go grocery shopping together? Talk about it. Only by communicating clearly with one another can we find out what the actual social norm is, and whether it is justified or not.
Of course, speaking up is not always easy. You might, for example, be insecure or experiencing peer pressure, which may tempt you to follow others. Even then, open-minded communication is the best way to prevent situations that you would rather avoid. Moreover, you will most likely find out that others share your opinion. In this way, we might make the world a bit better – and in these times, a bit safer too.
Original language: Dutch