Around 398AD, the now modern day Madagascar found herself in a state of economic and moral quagmire – the prices of the commodity skyrocketed and the kingdom was practically bankrupt, crime rates quadrupled within a year, Parents sell children for money (while some children sold parents for food), and for the folks who can’t – they practically died of hunger, […] you can think of anything bad and add it to the list, it was awful.

The emperor then, Pesarhadon VII became flummoxed at the state of his kingdom (and like most (weak) leaders do) he quickly shifted the blame on some other parties. In this case it was the cluelessness of his ministers. In fact, in 1901 a papyrus was discovered by a Norwegian-German Archaeologist hinting at a writing by Pesarhadon VII – it reads: “the evidence available to me was that they have a clear weakness in character, one that is very, very difficult to articulate”. (Translated, roughly, from a very ancient form of Malagasy)

He had to call for help, and he has nowhere to go except to the Sandon priestesses. (The Sandon priestesses are one of the most beautiful sets of women in the kingdom, in fact beauty was the top quality for selection, next to only precognition and similar psychic powers). The Patron god of the city was Sandon at this time, as they are notoriously pantheists.

When the Sandon priestesses heard the emperor out, they had an instant solution to the problem – They made the king an invisible cloak (Saeredon). Saeredon is made from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or visibly obtuse (To borrow from Hillary Clinton: deplorable, and most likely, irredeemable). The plan was to use the Saeredon as a mystical litmus test for the ministers’ cluelessness. The plan was so tightly controlled that NO ONE knew about what was to happen except the priestesses and the emperor.

On the fateful day, he wore the Saeredon and paraded majestically in front of his ministers. To the emperor’s amazement all the ministers not only saw his cloths, but they praised him profusely for his panache. At the end of the plot, when he sat on his throne with a bare buttocks (still utterly amazed).  One of the Sandon priestesses approached him and whispered

Sandon priestess: Your royal highness, your ministers seem to love you Saeredon, we are wondering if you actually do too?

Pesarhadon VII: Yes I do (as he smiles feigningly)

The next morning (before dawn), the beautiful priestesses took to their heels […]

Before I proceed, 3 important things took place in Pesarhadon VII palace:

1) All of the ministers knew the Emperor was completely naked, 2) All of them acted contrary to this knowledge, and finally, 3) All of them wrongfully believe that other ministers had no conflict between the knowledge and their action (including the Emperor himself!)

Let’s proceed

About a decade ago, when I was taking a subject in my Mathematics class in High School, I found it quite tricky. The first day it was taught, I thought I could manage it, but on the last day – I wasn’t far from confused. But my Math’s teacher was a complete gentleman, fairly sturdy, completely dark-skinned, and with a signature pot belly, not too big, not too small (and I must say) it looks good on him.

He asked the whole class as he does routinely “do you understand?” I looked around, mostly my closest friends, to gauge my position – they all looked fine. I wanted to ask a few questions but I had some disincentive not to do so – I was one of the students who get the highest score in the class (occasionally, next to a very, very talented young lady). I didn’t want to look stolid by confessing my poor understanding of the subject, so I kept mum.

The very next minute the teacher left the class, a friend (equally bright) sitting right next to me asked if I understood the subject, and immediately pleaded I teach him. A huge chunk of my friends replicated this request before lunch break.

I have spent some time re-adapting the 1837 wildly famous Hans Andersen’s story, I proceeded with a personal, but yet emblematic one, both describing a ubiquitous phenomenon in almost any milieu. It turns out that this social phenomenon is well reported (and very well validated empirically). It was termed pluralistic Ignorance (PI) by Floyd Allport in 1993 and it is used to describe situation where, say, Bob rejects a group norm but completely believes that Stephen, Dan, Max (and many more of his friends in the milieu) accept it.

One of such report was carried out by Deborah Prentice and Dale Miller in 1993 in their paper titled “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm”. In a series of four studies, they examined Princeton college students’ attitude towards drinking alcohol and how they gauge other’s attitudes. In summary, they were able to grab hold of clear cut evidences of pluralistic ignorance.

I think every single person should be aware of pluralistic ignorance, it is worth paying attention to for the following simple reasons 1) It is completely inseparable from social groups (which means you are probably experiencing one now!) 2) it can be extremely difficult to detect (either by an obstruction by the ego or by pure negligence); and, finally 3) it can (and will) allow for the metastasis of a behavior no one actually believes in. And when such behavior happen to be an anti-social behavior – Too bad.

Watch out for your PI!

(Photo Credit)

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