Are you on the DL about your views at Church? Do you think you are the only one who doesn’t like (or believe) a certain thing that everyone else likes (or believes)? Have you ever been surprised or relieved to discover that other people felt the same way?

Pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but go along with it because they assume, incorrectly, that most others accept it. This is also described as “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes”.

I recently met another LDS woman who had read my article about garments that I wrote several years ago for By Common Consent. In the article, I had polled ~250 women about garments, and they shared information about some of the problems they had with fit, design flaws and changes, and psychological issues due to the nature of garment wearing. This woman said that reading that article felt life-changing to her. It was the first time she realized that she wasn’t the only one struggling, that it was actually normal to have problems like she was having. She had assumed that everyone else liked and supported the norm because nobody talked about it. She thought she was the weirdo, or her body was weird, or she just wasn’t faithful enough.

This brings up the idea of unpopular norms, another important concept in psychology.

Unpopular norms are a pervasive and puzzling phenomenon of the social world. They are norms that are established and maintained against the interest of their subjects, but without external coercion. Pluralistic ignorance has been suggested as a potential explanation of unpopular norms.,potential%20explanation%20of%20unpopular%20norms.

Why would people publicly support an idea that they privately disagree with? Because we imagine (through pluralistic ignorance) that everyone else supports the idea, and group belonging is more important and valuable than the negative effects of this specific belief. But there’s even more to the story:

While peer sanctioning suggests a ready explanation for why people conform to unpopular norms, it is harder to understand why they would enforce a norm they privately oppose. The authors argue that people enforce unpopular norms to show that they have complied out of genuine conviction and not because of social pressure. They use laboratory experiments to demonstrate this “false enforcement” in the context of a wine tasting and an academic text evaluation. Both studies find that participants who conformed to a norm due to social pressure then falsely enforced the norm by publicly criticizing a lone deviant. A third study shows that enforcement of a norm effectively signals the enforcer’s genuine support for the norm. These results demonstrate the potential for a vicious cycle in which perceived pressures to conform to and falsely enforce an unpopular norm reinforce one another.

So, according to this, there is a cycle that supports unpopular norms and makes them have sticking power:

  1. Individuals who value group belonging manufacture an independent rationale for their support. They use this explanation to help themselves feel rational for supporting the norm and to hide from themselves and others that they are caving to social pressure. This helps them avoid the pain of self-discovery and to believe themselves to be rational.
  2. To further demonstrate their fealty to the group, they may also criticize any individuals who dissent or deviate from norms, and this reinforces the unpopular norm. Once you’ve inflicted pain on others by supporting the norm you dislike, you are more likely to continue to do so, “blaming the victim” or dissenter for lacking faith, knowledge or morals for their lack of support or gaslighting them for not “understanding” your invented rational to justify your support of the unpopular norm.

Many years ago, I ran into a fairly new convert at the grocery store. She stopped me and asked, completely out of the blue, “Why don’t (we) Mormons drink tea?” She looked exasperated, like this just didn’t make any sense to her that we wouldn’t drink tea, and she wanted the “real” explanation. At the time, she had caught me off guard, and I gave her what was essentially a pseudo-scientific made-up answer about tannins, something I had heard somewhere (that both black tea & coffee, unlike colas, contain tannins).[1] Later, I looked it up, and I realized that what I had said was neither accurate (meaning, tannins aren’t super harmful [2]) nor was it the Church’s official stance. Basically the Church’s stance was “because we said so.”

What she was looking for was a reasonable explanation of what was wrong with tea that somehow only the Church knew, a reason that justified the sacrifice of not drinking it, that made her on team “prophetic right answer” by joining the Church. The problem is, we don’t really have that kind of answer. Aside from having more caffeine than Diet Coke, tea isn’t inherently bad for you. Tea drinkers are among the longest-lived people on the planet (see: Okinawa). You can knock them for having yellow teeth I guess, but it’s not actually hurting anyone to drink tea. For people living in the intermountain west, giving up tea is also pretty low cost (really low cost in the early settlement days when they might have had to import decent English tea). It’s not exactly an unpopular norm (or not a high stakes one) because tea is an acquired taste. You don’t necessarily love tea the first time you drink it. It might taste like hot flavored water to you, and that’s not a big deal to give up to most. The people who mind giving up tea are primarily converts who don’t understand the (missing) rationale not to drink it, and this is particularly difficult for those who live in cultures where tea-drinking is an integral part of the culture, such as in Asia or England.

There was an episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast on this topic that I listened to about a week ago. In the podcast, they talked about the Jonestown massacre, and that there were a few dissenters who did not want to drink the Flavor Aid [3], but that the leader was ultimately persuasive because not enough people were willing to raise objections when the majority remained silent. In a recording before the mass suicide, a lone woman is heard arguing that the children didn’t need to die, and that she and others wanted to live. The leader (who knew that he would be jailed or killed for his prior actions if he didn’t commit suicide) deftly turned the conversation toward the bravery required to die for the Lord, that they shouldn’t be afraid of death. He cast her reasonable reservations as an irrational fear or a moment of weakness, to marginalize her influence, and it worked. His pushback to her was subtle and soft spoken, but it was the only signal needed. Immediately, other followers harshly shouted her down, in a show of bravado, which allowed Jones to appear to moderate their rancor. In reality, we know that the mass suicide was orchestrated by him purely for his own benefit (and those highest ranking in the group who had, like him, already murdered people that day).

This is a very extreme example of unpopular norms (mass suicide and killing one’s own children is pretty unpopular), but it shows the pattern of reinforcing unpopular norms very well:

  • Unpopular norm is discussed.
  • Dissenter attempts to dissuade the group.
  • One who benefits casts doubt on the person questioning the norm.
  • Members of the group rally to demonstrate their group loyalty by attacking the dissenter and supporting the norm.
  • The unpopular norm prevails.

This sounds a lot like a problem frequently discussed in online Mormon groups, the complaint that a person doesn’t feel they can be authentic or honest about how they feel because they will be ostracized by the group. There are a few deleterious effects of this group behavior:

  • Individuals feel they are the lone deviant which can cause personal distress among other negative psychological reactions. They come to believe they are less knowledgeable, less committed, or less “worthy” (in a Church sense). Aside from these internal consequences of anxiety and self-doubt if they stay in the group, these feelings can escalate a person’s ultimate desire to leave the group.
  • Some may take actions that are harmful to themselves because they believe the behavior is “normal” and fear being ostracized. They may cling to practices they should have abandoned for health or emotional reasons. (For one example, gay Church members who remain closeted or engage in self-harm rather than be rejected by the group).
  • Unwillingness of the group to change a (secretly unpopular) status quo practice.

This phenomenon is linked to Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, which also points to the way to break the spell of the unpopular norm. In the story, being able to “see” the Emperor’s clothes is evidence of a person’s superior intellect and discernment. If an adult admitted an inability to see the clothes, it would be admitting they were a fraud (when in reality, the clothes were the fraud). Although all the citizens instinctively understand this and go along with the idea that the King’s clothes are beautiful, it’s a child who innocently exclaims, “He’s naked!” Because a child is safe from repercussions due to the low expectations for children and their developmental role that falls outside of society, the child is able to say what they are all thinking. Sometimes converts (or immigrants or others new to a group) are a great source for pointing out unpopular norms, so long as we don’t fall for our own and others’ justifications of the unpopular norm.

One of the best ways to reveal unpopular norms, as I found in my garment post, is through anonymous polling which allows the real group norms to surface while not calling out any individual for their “wrong” answers. We all enjoy reading polls of our own in-groups to see what these secret “wrong” opinions are and if they match our own unstated views and how prevalent they are. Another avenue for discovering the unpopular norms, though, is the prevalence of online discussion groups. People are more likely to disclose their dislike for unpopular norms in a group where others are doing so. The downside of these groups, though, is that they can create their own unpopular norms. We simply create new social norms that may be adhered to out of a desire to fit in, not necessarily because they are our personal views. It’s a psychological phenomenon that is hard-wired into us. Recognizing it is the only way to defeat it.

  • What unpopular norms have you discovered in the Church (or in society at large)? How did you learn that others also disliked it?
  • Have you ever punished someone for having a dissenting view when you didn’t really feel that strongly about it or also disagreed with it? Why?
  • Have you ever found yourself inventing a rationale to support an unpopular norm?


[1] I think the “tannin” rationale sounded reasonable to me because of the movie Rosemary’s Baby in which she wears a talisman around her neck while she’s pregnant with Lucifer’s child, and the talisman smells bad and contains something called tannis root. Somehow, my brain processed these two similar-sounding things into a general category of “obscure things that are bad for humans.”

[2] “Although largely useful to the body, tannins also have negative effects. They are often anti-nutritional and can hinder digestion and metabolism, unlike polyphenols. Tannins can also help obstruct the blood’s absorption of iron, which may lead to many health problems.” But on the upside: “The positive health benefits of tannin come from its anti- carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic properties, mostly due to its anti-oxidising nature.”,lead%20to%20many%20health%20problems.

[3] Not as catchy as “drink the Kool-Aid” but accurate