Pluralistic Ignorance, a.k.a., “Everybody’s Doing It”

December 30, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Couple 1“Everybody’s doing it.”  Before this line was used by teenagers in attempts to strong-arm their parents into allowing them to engage in all manner and kind of youthful foolishness, it was the title of a 1938 movie about an alcoholic who creates picture puzzles for a national contest only to get kidnapped before he can deliver the final batch of puzzles.  From the reviews I’ve read, the movie wasn’t very good or very believable.[1]

“Everybody’s doing it.”  Long after the movie, I remember using this line on my parents – with slight modifications, of course.  If I wanted to go to a party, I’d tell my parents, “But everyone will be there!”  Or if I wanted my parents to buy me something, I’d tell them, “But everyone else has one!”

“Everybody’s doing it.”  This is more than just a teenager’s favorite line.  It’s also a dangerous state of mind.

A few years ago, two researchers from Binghamton University in New York, Chris Reiber and Justin Garcia, published a paper titled, “Hooking Up: Gender Differences, Evolution, and Pluralistic Ignorance.”[2]  In this paper, they explored the differences between the real and perceived comfort levels with different types of sexual activity among young adults.  They discovered what psychologists refer to as “pluralistic ignorance.”  They explain:

Pluralistic ignorance (PI) has been demonstrated to play a role in hook-up behavior.  PI is characterized by individuals behaving in accordance with (generally false) beliefs attributed to the group, regardless of their own beliefs … Young adults routinely believe that others are more comfortable with various sexual behaviors than they, themselves, are.  This leads them to behave as if they were more comfortable than they actually are, and engage in behaviors with which they are not actually comfortable.

After a myriad of charts and graphs illustrating this thesis, the researchers conclude, “Individuals of both genders attributed to others of the same gender higher comfort levels [with different kinds of sexual activity] than they themselves had.”  In other words, those surveyed thought that “everyone was doing it,” but, as it turns out, they’re not.  And if you think they are, you’re ignorant about what’s going on in the bedrooms of the plurality of people in our world.

Tragically, this perception of the nature and type of sexual activity among one’s peers often leads to the violation of one’s own ethical sensibilities.  Thus, far too many people wind up breaching moral boundaries for the farcical, mistaken impression that “everyone is doing it.”

In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul speaks of how “the requirements of [God’s] law are written on [people’s] hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Romans 2:4).  The apostle here contends that all people, whether or not they are Christian, have a conscience – a foundational moral compass that helps them distinguish right from wrong.  My contention is that we ought to spend more time listening to our consciences and less time worrying and wondering about what “everybody else” is doing.  As the research shows, we don’t really know what everybody else is doing and when we try to guess, we guess wrong.

So, to those who are thinking of breaching an ethical boundary so you can roll with a cultural tide, you need to know:  the cultural tide will only roll you.  Others are not doing what they say they’re doing and you don’t really know what they’re doing anyway.  So listen to your conscience, not to them.  Or, better yet, listen to God’s Word. You’ll wind up much less morally anguished and much more joyfully fulfilled.


[1] “Everybody’s Doing It,” imdb.com

[2] Chris Reiber & Justin R. Garcia “Hooking Up: Gender Differences, Evolution, and Pluralistic Ignorance,” Evolutionary Psychology 8, no. 3 (2010): 390-404.

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