climate change media

Wind energy and pluralistic ignorance

The guardian brought together two contrasting statistics about wind energy this week:

  • 68% of people are in favour of onshore wind power.
  • When asked to guess what percentage of people support wind power, they say 40%.

In other words, most people support wind power, but think that most other people don’t. We don’t mind wind turbines, but mistakenly believe that we’re in the minority.

This is an example of what social scientists call ‘pluralistic ignorance‘. This occurs when a group of people all hold the same attitude, but act contrary to their own opinion because they believe that everyone else thinks something different.

It’s very common, and I encounter it at work regularly. Perhaps we’re discussing a design concept, and I don’t think it’s very good. But since everyone else seems to like it, I don’t say anything. Then later, once it’s been printed, it turns out that nobody’s actually all that keen on it. We were all thinking the same thing, but none of us wanted to be the negative voice in the room.

It happens in social situations all the time, but George Marshall talks about the bigger risks of pluralistic ignorance in his book Don’t Even Think About It, and suggests that it can affect national issues. People say they are concerned about climate change, but don’t necessarily act on their beliefs because nobody else seems to be doing anything. We might even think that most people are actually climate skeptics.

“When people misread the norm in this way,” writes Marshall, it can end up with “a society in which the majority of people keep silent because they fear that they are in the minority.”

A situation of pluralistic ignorance over wind power matters because we may well turn away from a very useful technology because we fear the political consequences of supporting it. In fact, politicians and campaigners shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. The negative voices are disproportionately loud, but can safely be ignored. Most people are in favour of renewable energy and have no problem with wind power, offshore and onshore.


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