Wednesday 29 April 2015

Pluralistic ignorance and the modern condition

I started work at the BBC just as Greg Dyke resigned over the Hutton report and management culture quickly moved from Greg’s ‘Cut the Crap’ initiative to the euphemistic ‘Delivering Quality First’. Each new strain of management thinking meant a round of speeches — transmitted to the organisation on a thing they called in a very Quatermass way ’the ringmain’ — and cuts. Mainly job cuts.

I’m a cynical sod, so the encroachment of what Private Eye calls ‘Birtspeak 2.0’ didn’t surprise me, and I managed to stay cynical and right for a few years before my opportunity to deliver quality came and I got the push. What kept me sane, cynical and right was the ability to call out the nonsense with colleagues. No one believed it even as they were putting it into practice. But I see less and less honest cynicism now. For every management speak ’bullshit bingo’ card you might see floating round the internet, for every joke about “running something up the flagpole” on cosy Radio 4 panel shows, for all that the existence of management cliche is a cliche itself; I see people taking versions of it in and repeating without question.

If you’ve ever spent time in a niche, or a workplace, you’ll recognise these patterns: an idea becomes a truism (‘content is king’), is repeated ad nauseum, and until the round of debunking starts everyone believes it. Then everyone believes the debunking. Consensus is held.

When the young boy blurts out that the Emperor is bare-arsed and bare everything else, it breaks a bubble of consensus. Russell Brand and Michael Winterbottom’s new film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, casts Brand as the boy — and the media and political establishment as the Emperor. Except that pointing out the problems isn’t the exclamation that needs to be made: but rather, as he says, that “change can happen.”


But that doesn’t tell the full story, the motivations for the sans culottes keeping quiet about the lack of ruling class trousers are fairly easy. Lose your head figuratively and point out that your ruler has his ruler out and you might lose your head. The problem in fictional 18th century Denmark would have been not the conformity of the crowd but the violence inherent in the unequal system.

Similarly in our workplaces it’s just not the case that a plucky truth-sayer will lead whole towns in a peaceful revolution. The weight of no one calling out will often be the very weight that prevents action. This is the spiral of silence, an idea developed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist, in the 1970s.

In the spiral, one view dominates the discussion and others disappear from common awareness as their proponents became silent. They become silent in part because other are: fear of separation or isolation from those around them helps that and becomes stronger as more stay quiet. The theory is sometimes used to explain why no one spoke up for the Jews in Nazi Germany — and Pastor Martin Niemöller would agree with Hans Christian Andersen that if no one is brave enough the spiral will continue downwards. Eventually the management speak will come for you too.

In this model, the media has a lot to do with creating the initial sound of silence. Neolle-Neumann calls the media a “one-sided, indirect, public form of communication, contrasting threefold with the most natural form of human communication, the conversation.” In research into authoritarian social contexts, Stella C. Chia says “Public opinion models, such as the spiral of silence, indicate that people form impressions of public opinion through exposure to news reports in the media.” In other words: what the papers say does matter, if they are all saying it.
Social psychologists call the public agreement with an idea that each individual knows is not true ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and it explains that group members agree because they are convinced that everyone else agrees and so they should too. And, yes, the media consensus plays a role in that. Brand would agree, challenging the media is a central part of his ’true news’ manifesto.

More often these days, I get the feeling not that everyone else holds a different view to me, but that no one believes what they’re saying: but they’ll all continue to say it anyway.

As the old joke goes: two guards on the Berlin Wall one says to the other, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Comrade?”
“Then I shall have to shoot you.”

Politicians and political journalists (by and large) all agree that GDP — essentially a measure of a country’s wealth divided by the number of people in it — is a good measure of the wealth of a county: even the supposedly left of centre politicians will talk of GDP growth when there’s little evidence that it is a good measure of the economic health of individuals. Closer to home, think about how your manager and colleagues are way too smart to think about your company’s ’2020 Vision’ without smirking, but manage to keep a straight face and go along with it. Yes, they all have them: Enterprise Rent-A-Car, The Coca-Cola Company, Sainsbury’s and seemingly the whole of Kent.

Or, am I wrong? Is this false consensus bias? Am I believing that others think like me when they don’t? Am I battling the concept of pluralistic ignorance with another bias of my own: and still not saying anything?

In an organisation, you do have a threat (of the sack, particularly in these days of austerity) and also a controlled media (email, internal comms). In tight social groups, like the unconference, the controlling effects of ‘the media’ (even if it’s a social media you all control) are multiplied, and the threat of isolation is greatest.

D. Garth Taylor writing in The Public Opinion Quarterly (1982) says that “if the level of confidence in victory becomes too low, the individual begins to worry about the risk of social isolation[…] begins to question whether or not it is a waste of resources (time, energy, money, etc.) to remain actively committed to his position.”

But also you are helped to think that you are all thinking the same by what’s called the availability heuristic: greater social contact increases the instances of false consensus rather than, as we might think, letting us feel safe in being able to disagree.

I have a theory that it’s getting worse, and it’s all about culture: in a real sense that our work, social and economic cultures are a nutrient for growing ‘bullshit’ memes like so many lab viruses. Our complicity in an open conversation (open as in scrutinised, rather than open as in free) helps control us. We have a perfect environment for an unholy collision of pluralistic ignorance fed by our media and our own false consciousness, a sort of spiral of complicity:
We don’t say anything, because no-one else is.

We assume that we don’t have to challenge the status quo, because everyone else must see the king’s privates swaying in the breeze.

We play along, because it’s just the easiest thing to do. And if you point out the problem you might have to solve it. Have you got a spare pair of pants?

Can ‘change’ happen as Brand says it can? Noelle-Neumann thinks it can, if we believe, “if there is a divergence in the assessment of the present and future strengths of a particular view, it is the expectation of the future position which will determine the extent to which the individual is willing to expose himself.”

Russell Brand might not have the answers but is certainly willing to expose himself. But if it’s not enough to hold your own sanity anymore, and we do have to expose ourselves can we? In the always on culture, can we face the threat of isolation?


Jon Bounds

Jon is a flâneur of words and the Internet who created, wrote and directed (mainly by Direct Message) the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter. He currently edits Paradise Circus: A Birmingham Miscellany.


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