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Pluralistic Ignorance


Cashew tree in love with my house

Black ants laid siege to my house. Tiny, almost atomic, creatures. Suddenly they were there wherever I looked. In endless lines they marched like devoted soldiers conquering an enemy’s territory. I had no choice but raise jingoistic slogans and pull out some AK-47s. I drew Lakshman Rekhas all over with Hit chalk. I sprayed Hit Lime Fresh wherever Maggie permitted me. [She detests the smell of chemicals.] Hoards of black specks stared at me soon from the floor. Dead ants.

Within hours of my cleaning up the entire place, new lines of ants appeared exactly in the same old places. The same infinite black lines moving like endless trains. Finally I traced their origins to two sources: my beloved cashew tree in front of the house and the ivy gourd behind. The ants were descending on to the walls of my house from these. I chopped off the cashew branches that touched my roof. I cut off the ivy gourd which had become too old to produce anything except black ants.

The siege came to an end. Well, almost. The ants which were there already inside the house still keep moving in circles seeking moksha through Hit.

The ants never learn the most essential lesson: that they don’t belong in some places.

Ants are programmed to follow each other’s pheromone trails, I learnt soon. Sometimes one of these atomic creatures will lose the trail and get into a viciously circular motion. And a whole lot of ants will follow it, moving in an endless circle, moving on until they succumb to exhaustion and lack of food and die. They are very devoted to the leader anyway. Very patriotic, should I say?

Some human beings aren’t very different from these ants. Once Dan Ariely, a psychologist at Duke University, lectured to a group of students on his field of behavioural economics. He started with a definition that sounded very technical, full of jargon. Actually the definition made no sense at all. The psychologist had just cobbled together a series of computer-generated random words and sentences to produce gibberish about ‘dialectic enigmatic theory’ and ‘neodeconstructive rationalism’.

The scholarly students listened with rapt attention. Nobody laughed. Nobody raised a hand to ask a doubt. Nobody frowned.

“And this brings us to the big question,” Ariely said dramatically. “Why has no one asked me what the @#$% I’m talking about?”

That day Ariely’s listeners, scholarly students of a university, learnt about pluralistic ignorance.

Eminent psychologist Floyd Allport introduced the concept of pluralistic ignorance. It refers to the feeling that one’s beliefs or attitudes are not shared by others when they actually are. Each student in Ariely’s lecture knew that he/she didn’t understand a thing about dialectical enigmatic theory and neodeconstructive rationalism. But what happens? Each one watches the others with a sidelong look. Every single student is sitting with rapt attention. Wow! This must be fantastic stuff. Only I’m a dunce here, I don’t understand it. So let me be quiet. I pretend that I understand what’ happening. Dialectical enigmatism suddenly becomes my beloved idea.

Nationalism can become such a beloved idea. Apathy can. Selfishness can become the noblest virtue. One ant that missed the trail can lead a whole army of ants in an endless vicious cycle and travel blissfully to their death.

Please note this, however. The ants are not conscious of their activity. The human beings in pluralistic ignorance are. But the latter choose to ignore their awareness. Does that make them any better than the ignorant ants? Is awareness that does not effect the necessary change in one’s thinking, attitudes, or action of any use?



  1. interesting analogy between the ants and humans!

    1. Sometimes the ants are better, they really work tirelessly. And they usually have a sensible sense of purpose too.

  2. That is a wonderful bit of analogy between ant behaviour and human behaviour! It is typically the affliction that has taken over the citizens of our country at the moment.

  3. Pluralistic ignorance, I know what that is, learned a term for that. Thank you.

  4. How interesting is the analogy you've drawn between the behavior of ants and pluralistic ignorance among humans. Yet, there's a vital difference between the two.

    1. And man appears even more stupid because of that difference.

  5. Hari Om
    I join the applause for this excellent word-sketch so neatly drawing the lines together of 'follow the leader'! It highlights, too, that frustrating tendency for so many not to dare question the leader/teacher. Of course, there are teachers/leaders who despise being questioned and do everything to dumb down anyone raising their hand... and thus those following learn to fear asking and also second-guess themselves, as you illustrate.

    Anyway, I'm glad your battle with the ants was won! YAM xx

    1. Thanks for the applause.

      Some leaders become too big to be questioned. Some become demi-gods.

  6. Love the analogy you have made here, it started off with such ease but had an impact by the end

  7. Thank you for the 'lakshman rekha' and 'moksha' visuals. Funny at the expense of the poor ants, but funny:)

    This "Is awareness that does not effect the necessary change in one’s thinking, attitudes, or action of any use?" is where trouble brews. When we look the other way. WE don't voice our discomforts loudly enough, often enough. When we don't take any action. When we become deaf to that little voice inside.

    About the cashew tree: does it bear fruit? Would love to see what it looks like--perhaps a pic in your next post?

    1. Most people are cowards. That's why the deafness.

      Yes, the cashew bears fruits but only in the season, summer.

  8. The ants bit was hilarious of course but it reminded me of a section from TH White's The Once and Future King. There Merlin is trying to reach Wart the importance of persistence but here, you have shown how destructive it can be to not use and voice your thoughts. It always is easier to just go with the crowd.


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