Understanding pluralistic ignoran...
Understanding pluralistic ignorance in organizations: application and theory Jonathon R.B. Halbesleben Department of Health Management and Informatics, School of Medicine, University of Missouri Columbia, Columbia, Missouri, USA Anthony R. Wheeler Foster College of Business Administration, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, USA, and M. Ronald Buckley Michael F. Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, USA Abstract Purpose ��� Pluralistic ignorance is defined as a situation in which an individual holds an opinion, but mistakenly believes that the majority of his or her peers hold the opposite opinion. The purpose of this paper is to refocus attention on pluralistic ignorance as an important, applied, and multilevel concept to organizational researchers by developing a theory of pluralistic ignorance in organizational contexts. Design/methodology/approach ��� The paper reviews the literature with regard to the causes and consequences (for individuals, groups and organizations) of pluralistic ignorance and develops an integrated understanding of how pluralistic ignorance influences employees and organizations. Findings ��� The paper finds that pluralistic ignorance is a complex phenomenon that has important consequences for organizations with relation to behavior of individuals. Research limitations/implications ��� The development of a model of pluralistic ignorance, with research propositions, will assist researchers seeking to conduct research on this topic. Originality/value ��� This paper is original in that it is the first to delineate the processes underlying pluralistic ignorance in a managerial/organizational context. Keywords Beliefs, Group thinking, Decision making, Individual perception Paper type Conceptual paper The role of social comparison as a means by which employees gather information about their role in organizations has become of significant importance to both researchers and practitioners over the last 50 years since Festinger proposed his theory of social comparison (Festinger, 1954 Goodman, 1977). Of growing interest among social comparison researchers has been the role of errors in social comparison at work. This has become an important topic primarily because social comparison is seen as a The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at www.emeraldinsight.com/0268-3946.htm Portions of this paper were presented at the 2002 Meeting of the Academy of Management in Denver, Colorado and the 2002 Meeting of the Southern Management Association in Atlanta, Georgia. The authors would like to acknowledge Gerald Ferris, Jenn Becker, Daniel Wren, and Gina Mayabb for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Understanding pluralistic ignorance 65 Received October 2005 Revised August 2006, September 2006 Accepted September 2006 Journal of Managerial Psychology Vol. 22 No. 1, 2007 pp. 65-83 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0268-3946 DOI 10.1108/02683940710721947
mechanism by which employees can reduce ambiguity and gain information in organizational settings (Festinger, 1954 Goodman, 1977 Kihlstrom and Klein, 1994 Kulik and Ambrose, 1992). However, if the processes underlying social comparison are faulty, the information obtained may be faulty as well. While researchers have begun to explore the role of social comparison errors in organizational behavior, there has been a distinct lack of theory to help guide investigations of when, why, and how these errors occur in organizational contexts. In this paper, we develop an organizational theory for pluralistic ignorance, a social comparison error with important implications for both managers and researchers due to its influence at multiple levels of organizations. Pluralistic ignorance is defined as a situation in which an individual holds an opinion, but mistakenly believes that the majority of his or her peers hold the opposite opinion (Allport, 1924, 1933 Katz and Allport, 1931, Prentice and Miller, 1996, 2002). Basically, pluralistic ignorance involves two social cognitive errors (O���Gorman, 1988). The first error is a social comparison error whereby individuals mistakenly believe that others hold an opinion opposite to their own. The second, related error is the mistaken belief that the individual can accurately assess the opinions of others. Taken together, we see that the individual believes his or her opinions differ from those of others (the social comparison error) and he or she is quite confident in that perceived difference (the accuracy error). Pluralistic ignorance is consistent with other social comparison errors including false consensus and false uniqueness (Harvey et al., 2001 Prentice and Miller, 1996). (See Miller and McFarland (1991) for a more lengthy discussion of how social comparison errors differ.) It differs in the type of social comparison error (e.g. underestimation of similarity of others��� opinions vs overestimation downward comparison vs upward comparison) that is being made and the outcome of the error (e.g. ego-depletion vs. ego-enhancement/protection). In false consensus, the individual overestimates how similar he or she is to other people such an error serves as a form of ego-protection, as it confirms for the individual that they are not different from important others. False uniqueness is most similar to pluralistic ignorance, but differs in that the perceived uniqueness of the individual leads to a positive feeling. False uniqueness is most often associated with positive traits (e.g. ���I���m much better at playing piano than average���) whereas pluralistic ignorance has typically been associated with some sort of negative psychological experience (though this need not always be the case, as we will argue later). In the past, organizational researchers have overlooked pluralistic ignorance as a variable capable of explaining organizational phenomena (Harvey et al., 2001) however, as a number of authors have already suggested, pluralistic ignorance may have important implications for organizations (Buckley et al., 2000 Halbesleben and Buckley, 2004, 2001). Pluralistic ignorance is recognized as an important process in organizations because of the pervasiveness of social comparison in constructing employees��� perceptions of the workplace environment that guides their behavior (i.e. Weick, 1995) errors in that social construction of workplace reality have a significant impact on subsequent social cognitive processes in organizations. As researchers continue to recognize the value of studying pluralistic ignorance in organizational contexts, a theoretical explication of pluralistic ignorance that is relevant to organizational contexts has become necessary. JMP 22,1 66
The purpose of this paper is to refocus attention on pluralistic ignorance as an integral concept to organizational researchers by developing a theory of pluralistic ignorance in organizational contexts. To this end, we review the literature with regard to the causes and consequences (both for individuals and organizations) of pluralistic ignorance. In doing so, we hope to illuminate the important implications that pluralistic ignorance holds for organizations and organizational researchers. The process of pluralistic ignorance In the following sections, we will review the process of pluralistic ignorance, in large part based on literature in social psychology and sociology. We seek to develop a theory of pluralistic ignorance that can guide researchers and managers as they attempt to understand this important organizational phenomenon. (Figure 1 graphically represents our propositions concerning this construct, including how its antecedents and consequences are related at multiple levels of organizations.) The causes of pluralistic ignorance Pluralistic ignorance is a complex phenomenon with multiple causes. Depending on the circumstances, pluralistic ignorance can be the result of one of a number of sufficient, but not necessary, causes. In effect, each of these causes leads to subtly different forms of pluralistic ignorance (Miller and Prentice, 1994) however, each form manifests the primary components of pluralistic ignorance. For each cause of pluralistic ignorance, we will discuss its theoretical groundings and an example from the pluralistic ignorance literature in an attempt to develop propositions to guide research on these causes. Minority influence. The notion that significant members of a social group that hold minority opinions can lead to pluralistic ignorance has been long supported in the pluralistic ignorance literature (see Schanck, 1932) and has led to the development of the Figure 1. A model of the pluralistic ignorance process in organizational contexts Understanding pluralistic ignorance 67