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The Danger of Misperceptions

Over the course of history, a phenomenon coined by social psychologists known as “pluralistic ignorance” has occurred in societies all over the world. It is defined as “the psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private attitudes and judgments are different from those of others, even though one’s public behavior is identical.”

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

For example, during the reign of Hitler, most German citizens privately viewed him as a barbarian, but kept these beliefs a secret, assuming that their views were not widely shared. During the era of the Jim Crow laws, historical accounts suggest that many white Southerners strongly disapproved of the laws, but felt obligated to support them. This occurrence essentially means that due to our incorrect perceptions of what our peers are doing, we think we should engage in the same irresponsible behaviors and make bad choices that we might not otherwise make.

This kind of group ignorance has been proven to be particularly risky. A recent study published in The Atlantic focused on the behavior of high school students, finding that young people wildly overestimate the sex and drug lives of their classmates, and even friends within their cliques. The study also found that ninth-graders who possessed exaggerated and incorrect ideas of their popular peers’ drug use were more likely to do drugs throughout high school. It also suggested that when kids are randomly assigned in a laboratory setting and made to think that the surrounding popular kids were deviants, they became more likely to behave in the same manner as those others.

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Students at BC are not immune to this kind of group ignorance. Behaviors such as engaging in binge drinking or having one night stands can be perpetuated by possessing the mentality that everyone else is doing it. Most students probably have exaggerated and created incorrect perceptions of how much their peers actually drink, engage in promiscuous sexual practices or use drugs; however, because of the existence of the misperception, more people will participate in these risky activities.

It can be extremely difficult to avoid the influence of peer pressure, especially if its cause is ultimately internal rather than external. People conform to fit in with how they think everyone else around them is behaving, which thus creates a vicious cycle of pluralistic ignorance. Any individual can privately believe that a certain behavior is risky and bad; however, nothing will change if people continue to believe that these secret opinions are unique and contrary to the beliefs of their peers.

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