The Loud Fringe: Pluralistic Ignorance and Democracy

It appears self-evident that democracy functions best if its citizens share a common reality. There is common agreement that society stands to benefit from diversity of opinions, but most people also appear to agree that a society would suffer when segments of the population operate within a fictional social world that is disconnected from reality.

Contemporary Australia is partly characterized by several such disconnects between (some) people’s perceptions and social reality: Here I focus on one particular problem known as “pluralistic ignorance” (e.g., Shamir & Shamir, 1997).

Pluralistic ignorance refers to the divergence between the prevalence of actual beliefs in a society and what people in that society think others are believing. For example, in 1976, more than 75% of white Americans actually thought that a mother should allow her daughter to play with an African-American child at home; but only 33% believed that that was the majority opinion—the remaining 67% thought that it was only a minority of people who would endorse cross-racial friendships. In other words, the vast actual majority of people felt that they were in the minority, whereas the bigoted minority felt that they were dominant in society.

This is no isolated case.

People who hold extremist minority opinions often vastly overestimate the support for their own opinions in the population at large. In Australia, people with particularly negative attitudes towards Aboriginals or asylum-seekers have been found to over-estimate support for their attitudes by a striking 67% and 80%, respectively (Pedersen, Griffiths, & Watt, 2008). To illustrate, although only 1.8% of people in the sample were found to hold strongly negative attitudes towards Aboriginal Australians, those few people thought that 69% of all Australians (and 79% of their friends) shared their fringe beliefs.

There is evidence that greater prejudice is associated with increasing belief that one’s own opinion is widely shared, when in fact greater prejudice maps into an increasing gap between own-belief and the actual prevalence of that opinion (Watt & Larkin, 2010). There are actually few highly prejudiced people but they think everybody else is like them. This gap is often thought to reflect a self-justification process which permits people to buttress their own normatively unacceptable attitudes by imagining that they are widely shared (Watt & Larkin, 2010). In other words; “it’s ok that I am bigoted because everyone else is too.”

There are, however, other factors at work as well. One obvious important determinant of public perceptions involves the media, and there is evidence that pluralistic ignorance arises from biased media coverage. For example, in the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, voices that advocated unilateral military action were given prominence in the American media, thus causing the large majority of people who actually wanted the U.S. to engage multilaterally, in concert with other nations, to feel that they were in the minority (Todorov & Mandisodza, 2004).

Let us return to contemporary Australia and the issue of climate change.

CSIRO just released a major report on Australian public attitudes towards climate change (Leviston & Walker, 2011), based on a representative sample of some 5,000 respondents. The results are quite intriguing: The vast majority of respondents (around 90%) agree that climate change is happening, but that vast majority is roughly equally split between those who accept that humans are the major cause (a little over 45%) and those who think it is “all natural” (a little below 45%).

To put this pattern of opinions into context, about 97% of all publishing climate scientists agree that human emissions are the primary cause of our changing climate (Anderegg et al., 2010; Doran & Zimmerman, 2009).

This divergence between scientific and public opinion by itself must be cause for concern.

What is even more interesting in the present context, however, is the extreme pluralistic ignorance revealed by the latest CSIRO survey: Leviston and Walker (2011) also asked their respondents to estimate the presumed prevalence of various opinions in the population. Their overall results are shown in the figure below.

Remarkably, these data show that even though only a tiny fringe is actually denying the existence of climate change, people overall assume that nearly a quarter of the population holds that view. Conversely, people underestimate the proportion of people who accept the fact that the climate is changing (and that humans are causing that change). This is a classic case of pluralistic ignorance.

An even more intriguing breakdown of the data is shown in the next figure which breaks the data down by the opinions of the respondents. That is, the presumed distribution of opinions is shown for each subgroup of opinions separately; for example, the group of bars on the left represents the belief about the distribution of opinions in the public at large by those who deny that climate change exists; whereas the group on the right shows the same beliefs by the people who accept the scientific consensus that humans cause the climate change that we are currently experiencing, and so on.

This result is quite striking: It means that the very few Australians (around 7 out of 100) who completely deny the reality of climate change falsely believe that their opinion is shared by half the population. Those same few folks also think that only 15% of their compatriots accept the prevailing scientific opinion; namely that humans cause climate change.

In other words, some 7% of Australians live in a fictional world in which their belief that the world is flat is shared by half of their compatriots, whereas only 15% of their compatriots are thought to believe that the Earth is actually a sphere.

What are the implications of this striking lack of calibration between own-belief and actual prevalence of this minority opinion?

One likely implication is that people who hold the minority viewpoint feel falsely emboldened by a presumed (but non-existent) level of support for their views. It takes little imagination to see this process at work in the seemingly inexhaustible self-righteousness of “shock jocks” and their talkback audiences when they direct their venom at climate scientists.

A second implication follows from the first one: People who hold the majority view that the climate is changing and that humans are causing the change underestimate the support for their view (although the under-estimate is far smaller in magnitude than the over-estimate by deniers).

What might have caused this striking pluralistic ignorance? We already considered one possibility earlier; namely, the self-justification process that is common among people who hold extremist views. “Everybody else is a denier, therefore it’s ok that I deny an entire body of science.”

A second likely factor is the consistently poor—and sometimes mendacious—coverage of climate science by the Australian media. Much has already been said about the appalling state of the media coverage in Australia, and the pluralistic ignorance observed with respect to climate change is yet another possible consequence of a distortion in coverage that a “knowledge economy” of the 21st century can ill afford.


Anderegg, W. R. L.; Prall, J. W.; Harold, J. & Schneider, S. H. (2010). Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 107, 12107-12109.

Doran, P. T., & Zimmerman, M. K. (2009). Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Eos, 90, 21-22.

Leviston, Z., & Walker, I. (2011, September). Second Annual Survey of Australian Attitudes to Climate Change: INTERIM REPORT. CSIRO (Behavioural Sciences Research Group).

Pedersen, A., Griffiths, B., & Watt, S. E. (2008). Attitudes toward out-groups and the perception of consensus: All feet do not wear one shoe. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 18, 543-557.

Shamir, J. & Shamir, M. (1997) Pluralistic ignorance across issues and over time: Information cues and biases. Public Opinion Quarterly, 61, 227-260.

Todorov, A. & Mandisodza, A. N. (2004). Public opinion on foreign policy: The multilateral public that perceives itself as unilateral. Public Opinion Quarterly, 68, 323-348.

Watt, S. E., & Larkin, C. (2010). Prejudiced people perceive more community support for their views: The role of own, media, and peer attitudes in perceived consensus. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40, 710-731.