Arguably, the concept of pluralistic ignorance was first developed not by social psychologists, but by a teller of tales called Hans Christian Anderson.
Once upon a time (he assures us) confidence tricksters visited the Emperor of China. They proposed to make him a fine new suit of clothes from a special cloth that could only be seen by people of taste and refinement.
The tricksters opened empty boxes and mimed the presentation of this (non-existent) magical material. Of course, nobody could see any fine cloth – but they all were afraid to say so, for fear that others would think they lacked the taste and refinement. The whole court praised the beauty of something that nobody could see.
In actual fact, nobody can see the cloth – but every courtier believes that all the others can. Nobody wants to look stupid, so nobody speaks up.
This idea explains a lot about the way in which Scientologists become committed to their remarkable beliefs – and raises the question of whether those beliefs are as strongly held as they appear to be.
We all know the end of the story. The Emperor puts on his expensive (non-existent) new clothes, made from the magic cloth, and parades before his people who cry out in admiration – until the spell is broken by an innocent child who shouts out exactly what he sees – “The Emperor’s not wearing any clothes!”.
By this time the tricksters have fled. Everyone except the child have been humiliated, but also (we hope) learned a valuable lesson in humility.
The same tricksters are still out and about. If someone tells you, “We can see that are one of the few people who are intelligent and knowledgeable enough to understand what a wonderful investment opportunity this is.” you should place your hand firmly on your wallet and leave the area immediately. An appeal to vanity is still commonly used by politicians, advertisers and other con artists.
Pluralistic Ignorance in Everyday Scientology
How does this apply to Scientology? Whenever anyone finishes a ‘course’ of auditing, they are required to make a short ‘inspirational’ speech to fellow members, detailing many examples of the personal development that it has brought about (which they call ‘wins’). Before you have completed your first course, and have to make one of these speeches you will have heard heard other people giving them, and know what is expected of you – a gushing account of how wonderful Scientology is.
However, what do you do if you don’t feel that you have gained anything? What if you don’t feel any different than you were before? Those who read my previous post about cognitive dissonance will recognise that there are two courses of action that our unfortunate Scientologist can now take. He can come to the common sense conclusion that Scientology did not work for him and leave – or he can rationalise his apparent failure like this:
“All of these other people have told me that that they have gained great things from Scientology. I must be the only one here who has failed in this. I don’t want to let everyone down, so I will lie about my ‘wins’, and take the next course. Maybe, if I keep trying, I will eventually achieve the same benefits as everyone else”.
Of course, unknown to him, all the other Scientologists in the group thought exactly the same thing when they were in his position. What’s more, when you finish the next course, and still have no meaningful ‘wins’, it’s harder to cut your losses, and easier to roll the dice again, and pay for the course after that.
In actual fact, nobody has had any ‘wins’ . Despite this, everyone in the group believe that all the other members have had ‘wins’ – after all, they said so in their ‘success stories’.
Outsiders might wonder why Scientologists don’t discover this simply by taking among themselves – the answer is that such conversations are specifically forbidden by the Church. Talking about your personal experience of Scientology practices is called ‘verbal tech’, and is severely punished.
Offenders can lose of status, or even be expelled and shunned by their new friends (a Scientology practice called ‘disconnection’). Since Scientologists are also encouraged to inform on each other, it is next to impossible for a good Scientologist to know what other members of the ‘Church’ really feel about their experience.
Pluralistic Ignorance in the Scientology Organisation
The concept of pluralistic ignorance can also be applied to Scientology on an organisational level. Scientology ‘churches’ (referred to as ‘Orgs’ – short for ‘organisation’) are scattered all over the world. The only information any given Org has the rest is from official Church of Scientology sources. As might be expected, these are upbeat, and give the impression that the network is thriving.
If your Org is empty, and struggling to pay the bills, you could be forgiven for assuming that you must be doing something wrong – after all (the Church assures you) all of the other Orgs are packed with new recruits and expanding every day.
Critics observe that the reality is different. Scientology Orgs worldwide have small congregations, or stand empty, demonstrating that Scientology is undergoing an unprecedented fall in membership. Senior Scientologists who have toured the Org network in the course of their duties have had their faith shaken by the observation that none of these facilities is anywhere near as prosperous as the Church suggests.
In actual fact every Org in the network is practically empty – but every member of the Org staff believe that their Org is the only one in the world that is failing.
The concept of pluralistic ignorance (as developed by social psychologists) was applied to Scientology by two sociologists (Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge) in their book “The Future of Religion” in a relatively short section entitled “Scientology: to be perfectly clear”.