Even if we notice an emergency, we might not interpret it as one. The problem is that events are frequently ambiguous, and we must interpret them to understand what they really mean. Furthermore, we often don’t see the whole event unfolding, so it is difficult to get a good handle on it. Is a man holding an iPhone and running away from a group of pursuers a criminal who needs to be apprehended, or is this just a harmless prank? Is someone stumbling around outside a nightclub drunk, or going into a diabetic coma? Were the cries of Kitty Genovese really calls for help, or were they simply an argument with a boyfriend? It’s hard for us to tell when we haven’t seen the whole event (Piliavin, Piliavin, & Broll, 1976). Moreover, because emergencies are rare and because we generally tend to assume that events are benign, we may be likely to treat ambiguous cases as not being emergencies.
The problem is compounded when others are present because when we are unsure how to interpret events we normally look to others to help us understand them (this is informational social influence). However, the people we are looking toward for understanding are themselves unsure how to interpret the situation, and they are looking to us for information at the same time we are looking to them.
When we look to others for information we may assume that they know something that we do not know. This is often a mistake, because all the people in the situation are doing the same thing. None of us really know what to think, but at the same time we assume that the others do know. Pluralistic ignorance occurs when people think that others in their environment have information that they do not have and when they base their judgments on what they think the others are thinking.
Pluralistic ignorance seems to have been occurring in Latané and Darley’s studies, because even when the smoke became really heavy in the room, many people in the group conditions did not react to it. Rather, they looked at each other, and because nobody else in the room seemed very concerned, they each assumed that the others thought that everything was all right. You can see the problem—each bystander thinks that other people aren’t acting because they don’t see an emergency. Of course, everyone is confused, but believing that the others know something that they don’t, each observer concludes that help is not required.
Pluralistic ignorance is not restricted to emergency situations (Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1988; Suls & Green, 2003). Maybe you have had the following experience: You are in one of your classes and the instructor has just finished a complicated explanation. He is unsure whether the students are up to speed and asks, “Are there any questions?” All the class members are of course completely confused, but when they look at each other, nobody raises a hand in response. So everybody in the class (including the instructor) assumes that everyone understands the topic perfectly. This is pluralistic ignorance at its worst—we are all assuming that others know something that we don’t, and so we don’t act. The moral to instructors in this situation is clear: wait until at least one student asks a question. The moral for students is also clear: ask your question! Don’t think that you will look stupid for doing so—the other students will probably thank you.