By Shreshtha Mishra
We are living in interesting times. Everything as we know it is changing. Brexit, the victory of Donald Trump, return of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh after 14 years, and Yogi Adityanath being announced as the Chief Minister of UP support this claim. On social media, people are deeply divided on the issue. With some people blindly supporting the choice for the Chief Minister of UP and some completely against it, what is the general consensus? More importantly, what is their opinion based on?
Pluralistic Ignorance: Decoding the phenomena
These incidents can be explained using the concept of ‘Pluralistic ignorance’. Pluralistic ignorance occurs when a majority of people privately believe in something but support the opposite in public. This happens because the people believe in going with the ‘majority opinion’. This leads to a variety of problems. Firstly, it leads to an exacerbation of issues, which are then blown out of proportion. This can help in explaining the reason why the exit poll results for the American Presidential election differed significantly from the final outcome. A majority of the people agreed to vote for anyone but Trump. Therefore, Trump’s victory came as a surprise to many. Naturally, exit polls do not take into account all the voters (which is the entire logic of sampling), but surely there is a more significant explanation of the divergences.
To explain this using ‘Pluralistic Ignorance’, one needs to understand that because a majority of the people around the world (including celebrities) spoke against and mocked Trump, people believed that this was the majority opinion. Hence, people declared that they were against Trump in public, whereas most of them were actually not. This false consensus created before the elections shattered as the individuals went with their private preferences while voting.
What is Macro Pessimism?
An example close to home would be that of the prohibition of alcohol in various states. The ‘educated elite’ like to support it in public because they believe it is the majority opinion of all other educated individuals and is the ‘right’ thing to say. However, they might not be so enthusiastic about following it privately. With Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of UP, the effects of this phenomena are stronger than before. While he has had a not-so-secular past, most people like to go with the flow and talk about how this is scary, without properly examining the facts. Here, the concept of macro pessimism comes into play. This also applies to the case of Donald Trump being elected. While people believe it is really scary and sad for the world, there is a possibility that these beliefs might be exaggerated based on nothing more than rumours.
How do people behave?
An independent study by Mohamed Nagdy and Max Roser titled “Optimism & Pessimism” claims that people have different levels of optimism when dealing with local and worldwide data. While people are highly optimistic about their own futures in every field; they become relatively pessimistic while discussing the future of their nation in particular, and the world in general. If a person in Delhi is asked about how likely it is that they will be targeted by a rightist or a leftist or be affected due to the changes in UP, they will carefully examine the probabilities associated with various events and most likely conclude that they won’t be affected. However, when asked about how these changes could affect things in UP in particular and in the country, they are more likely to present a gloomy picture and exaggerate the effects based on what the general opinion is.
Thus, when making an estimate of how an event is likely to affect their personal lives, people usually are optimistic and risk loving, downplaying existing statistics and looking at the bright side of things. On the other hand, when making estimates at a national or international level, they rely heavily on general opinion and tend to be highly pessimistic and overvalue risk.
How much information do we get?
This difference in levels of optimism has its roots in the asymmetry of information that is available to people. People are usually not well aware of the history of events and are largely affected by what the media has to say. Not only are they unaware of many new developments, but fail to revise information in accordance with the present changes. This lag between information and reality is what causes the social pessimism.
On the other hand, when processing information which affects them personally, people tend to pay close attention to the details and have an incentive to be as accurate as possible. This accuracy brings in a component of optimism among the people when looking at their own future prospects. When talking about demonetisation, people usually to mention how much misery it caused to the general population. However, the effects of Demonetisation on the individuals themselves might not have been as severe.
Another reason for the phenomena regards to how people perceive the different information available. Local information is perceived to be more real, and people like to believe that it is a short run change which will not affect things in the long run. Local change is visible and tangible. People can closely monitor the occurrences and rely on their judgement. However, information at the macro level is not examined very carefully, and its implications are not studied closely. Thus, they tend to form an image of the event which is usually not very close to reality. When asked about how likely a person expects to be affected by the surge in protectionism in the world, a person is more likely to take it lightly and classify it as a ‘non-significant change’. On the other hand, people tend to be pessimistic regarding the same phenomena worldwide.
Thus, public perceptions can diverge largely from reality and make things look more gloomy than they actually are. This might be the reason why people are overreacting to the recent turn of events. Thus, people should refrain from making extreme judgements before taking all information into account. After all, everything need not be categorised as black or white.
Featured Image Source: Indian Express
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