Exaggerating the recent turn of events: How close are we to reality? | Shreshtha Mishra

Shreshtha Mishra

We are living in very exciting times. With Brexit, the victory of Donald Trump, the return of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh (UP) after 14 years and now with Yogi Adityanath being announced as the Chief Minister (CM) of UP, everything as we know it, is changing. Browsing through social media, I notice a deep sense of divide among people on the issues we are currently surrounded with. With some people blindly supporting the choice for the Chief Minister of UP and some completely against it, what is the general consensus? More importantly, what is their opinion based on?

I’d like to explain the incidents in the world using the concept of ‘pluralistic ignorance’. Pluralistic ignorance occurs when a majority of people privately hold a notion or an opinion, however publicly choosing to advocate a contrary stand in case the latter seems to be reflective of public unanimity or a “majority opinion”.

This phenomenon leads to a variety of problems. Firstly, it leads to an exacerbation of issues, which are then blown out of proportion. This can help to explain the reason why the exit poll results for the American Presidential election differed significantly from the final outcome; similarly, how the “majority opinion” seems to reject the surprising vote for the ‘Leave’ campaign in Britain. While the people seemed to be willing to vote for anyone but Trump, Trump’s victory came as a surprise to many. Of course, exit polls do not take into account all the voters (which is the whole point behind sampling), but surely there is a more significant explanation of the divergences. To explain this using ‘pluralistic ignorance’, one needs to understand that although a majority of the people across the world, including some well acclaimed celebrities, seemed to have conveniently tended to believe that disfavoring Trump was the majority opinion while declaring so in the public arena, most of them were actually not against his candidacy. This false notion created prior to the elections was shattered as the individuals went with their private preferences irrespective while casting their vote.

Anti-Brexit Protests in London. (Courtesy: The Daily Mirror)

Further, an example close to home would be the example of the prohibition of alcohol in various states. The ‘educated elite’ prefers to support it in public, as they believe that the same is the popular or the majority opinion of all other educated individuals and is hence the ‘right’ stand to take. However, their enthusiasm to rigorously support it might be lacking on a private front..

With Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of UP, the effects of this phenomenon are stronger than ever before. While he has had a past which can be called anything but secular, most people find it appropriate to follow the herd and support the popular notion of how this could have serious ramifications without factually verifying their opinion.. Here, I’d like to invoke the concept of macro pessimism to substantiate my claims. This also applies to the case of election of Donald Trump as the US President and to the public outcry following demonetization. While people believe that the said events have devastating effects, is there a possibility that these beliefs might be exaggerated and based on nothing more than hearsay?

Yogi Adityanath becomes CM of Uttar Pradesh. (Courtesy: Indian Express)

An independent study by Mohamed Nagdy and Max Roser (2016) – ‘Optimism & Pessimism’ (Published online at OurWorldInData.org.) claims that people have different levels of optimism when dealing with local and worldwide data. While people are highly optimistic about their own futures in every field, they are relatively pessimistic while discussing the future of their nation in particular, and the world in general.

To extrapolate with an illustration, if a person residing in Delhi is asked about his opinion on the likelihood of being targeted by a rightist or a leftist or be affected due to the recent political changes in UP, they will carefully examine the probabilities associated with various events and most likely conclude that they won’t be affected by such changes. However, when asked about how these changes could affect things generally in UP and in the country at large, they are more likely to present a gloomy picture and exaggerate the effects based on what happens to be the prevailing general opinion on the subject.

Thus, when making an estimate of how an event is likely to affect their personal lives, people usually are optimistic and risk loving, as they downplay existing statistics and tend to look at the brighter side of things. On the other hand, when making estimates at a national or an international level, they seem to heavily rely on the prevailing general opinion and tend to be highly pessimistic while overvaluing the risk.

This difference in levels of optimism has its roots in the asymmetry of information that is available to people. People are usually not well aware of the history of events and are largely affected by what the media has to say. Not only are they unaware of many new developments, but they also fail to revise information in accordance with the present changes. This lag between information and the reality is what causes the social pessimism.

Thus, lack of information and making an opinion based on hearsay is a major reason for a surge in pessimism. On the other hand, when processing information which affects them personally, people tend to pay close attention to the details and have an incentive to be as accurate as possible. This accuracy brings in a component of optimism among people when looking at their own future prospects. As regards demonetization, people usually make a mention of how the move has caused much misery to the general population. However, the effects of demonetization on the individuals themselves might not be as severe.

Another reason for the phenomena is how people perceive the different information available. Local information is perceived to be more real; they like to believe that it is a short run change and will not affect things in the long run. Local change is visible and tangible. People can closely monitor the occurrences and rely on their opinion or judgement of the whole situation. However, information at the macro level is not examined very carefully and its implications are not studied closely. Thus, they tend to form an image of the event, which is usually not very close to reality. For instance, when asked about the likelihood of a person being affected by the surge in protectionism in the world, a person is more likely to casually brush it off and classify it as ‘not a significant change’, however, one tends to be highly pessimistic when questioned on the impact of the same phenomenon on the world at large.

Thus, public perceptions can diverge largely from reality to make things look gloomier than they actually are. This seems to justify the sudden outrage in people in response to the recent turn of events. Therefore, people should refrain from making extreme judgements before taking complete set of facts into account. After all, not everything must be categorized as black or white.


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