Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Pluralistic Ignorance

By John Trimble

I have learned about pluralistic ignorance from Bob Cialdini’s great book on persuasion. Pluralistic
ignorance is a term you may never have heard but you have heard the stories: someone is attacked or threatened in front of or in ear-shot of a large group of people and no one lifts a finger to help. This apathy seems inexplicable and incomprehensible. But it is not: It is pluralistic ignorance.

Humans are socialized, particularly in large urban areas, to count heavily on the group response of others, of the “crowd” to determine what the correct response should be in many situations. The social evidence can unfortunately be interpreted by the individual who then thinks that if “nobody is concerned then there is probably nothing wrong.”  Additionally, with several potential helpers around, the personal responsibility of each individual to react is reduced.

Conversely, a single individual, uninfluenced by the non-reaction of a crowd, probably would react and save the day. So much so that if you were to have a health emergency in a crowd your best bet, according to social scientists, is to single out a specific individual in the crowd and say, “Hey, you in the blue suit, call 911, I have an emergency” as opposed to thinking that someone out of this large group surely will come to my aid.

This is a dark example of the downside of “group think” and also the power of the uninfluenced individual. Are there different, more common examples that occur every day of pluralistic ignorance?
In a word, yes.

In business today how many staff or management meetings use group think or group consensus to avoid resolving business problems, addressing out-dated technology or manual processes? Glances around the conference table reinforce the idea that if several of the attendees or managers are comfortable with status quo, with apathy, then there must not be a problem. That the old world way of processing information, handling A/P, claims, staying paper based, whatever, must be OK.

It’s not.

Obviously here there is no gore, no loss of life, no front page story but it is still a big problem. To overcome pluralistic ignorance in the business setting there is still the need for that one individual to take personal responsibility to get help.

For resuscitating a business process with failing vital signs, happily that guy in the blue suit, the one taking personal responsibility...he can call the 911 equivalent: IOS.

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