The Disconnect Between our Beliefs and Actions

Gretchen worked in a factory which produced material used in filters for automobiles, air conditioners, and a number of common everyday items where filters were necessary to trap dust particles. The filters were made by winding a fine filament around a drum to form a mat. While the filament was being wound on the drum, a binder was sprayed on the drum to help keep the filament in place as the mat was formed. The mat was then stretched in multiple directions to form the filter. 

What Gretchen noticed was that the employees in the factory had an uncommon level of coughing while many struggled to breathe. Gretchen wondered about the binder so she did a search and found the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The MSDS showed that the binder had carcinogenic properties.

Gretchen wanted to alert the plant management about the problem, but chose not to speak up. She perceived that speaking up would make her an outcast. The company continued to use the binder for years. 

When the community had an unexplained level of lung cancer cases, the local university was asked to investigate. The binder was identified as the problem, and the company was forced to change the binder it used. 

At a union meeting, the employees started talking about the binder and the health effects that all of them faced. It turned out that Gretchen wasn’t alone in her earlier concern. In fact, over half of the employees had done what Gretchen had done. They found out the binder could cause cancer but chose not to speak out. What’s at work here? 

It’s a phenomenon that social psychologists give an evil sounding name: pluralistic ignorance. Basically, it’s when we believe that we are in the minority when actually our beliefs are closer to what others believe. We vastly underestimate the support for what we believe. 

We are afraid to speak up because we don’t want to be embarrassed or excluded from our peer groups. This is one reason that polls of public opinion are often misleading. Are the polls measuring what we actually believe, or what we think others believe? The result is that we don’t get a true reflection of public sentiment. 

Just imagine how pluralistic ignorance can affect society. Might it have prolonged the Jim Crow policies of the south? Might it be the reason we don’t take action on climate change? Could social media be accelerating the problem? Could it be why some hurtful positions of candidates for office seem to be popular? How do we build a society where our values and beliefs and not the “crowd” thinks is what guides our daily lives? 

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“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King

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