From Note Ban to Yogi, How Majority Opinion Is Leaving Us Baffled

We are living in interesting times. With Brexit, the victory of Donald Trump, the return of the BJP in UP after 14 years and now with Yogi Adityanath being announced as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, everything as we know it, is changing.

Browsing through social media, I notice people deeply divided over the issue. 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 believe something else but publicly support the opposite of what they believe because they believe that is the majority opinion.

This phenomenon leads to variety of problems.

First, 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 or the surprising vote for the ‘Leave’ campaign in Britain.

While most of the people agreed 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 with majority of the people all around the world, including famous celebrities, speaking against and mocking Trump, people believed that this was the majority opinion and declared that they were against Trump in the public arena, whereas most of them were actually not.

This false consensus created before the elections was shattered as the individuals went with their private preferences while voting.

Further, an example close to home would be the example of prohibiting alcohol in various states. The ‘educated elite’ like to support it in public because they believe that is the majority opinion of all the other educated individuals and the ‘right’ thing to say. However, they might not be so enthusiastic about following it privately.

With Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP, the effects of this phenomenon are stronger than ever before. While he has had a not-so-secular past, most people like to just go with the flow and talk about how this is scary, without properly examining the facts.

Here, I’d like to quote the concept of macro pessimism to substantiate my claims. This also applies to the case of Donald Trump being elected and demonetisation.

While people believe it is really scary and sad for the world, is there a possibility that these beliefs might be exaggerated and based on nothing more than hearsay?

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 more on the pessimistic side while discussing the future of their nation in particular, and the world in general.

If a person in Delhi is asked about how likely it is that they will be targeted by a rightist or a leftist or be affected due to the changes in UP, they will carefully examine the probabilities associated with various events and most likely conclude that they won’t be affected.

However, when asked about how these changes could affect things generally in UP and the country, they are more likely to present a gloomy picture and exaggerate the effects based on what the general opinion is.

Thus, when making an estimate of how an event is likely to affect their personal lives, people usually are optimistic and risk loving, they downplay existing statistics and tend to look at the bright side of things. On the other hand, when making estimates at a national or international level, they rely heavily on general opinion and tend to be highly pessimistic and overvalue 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 fail to revise information in accordance with the present changes.

This lag between information and the reality is what causes 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 the people when looking at their own future prospects.

When talking about demonetisation, people usually mention how much misery it caused to the general population. However, the effects of demonetisation 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.

When asked about how likely a person expects to be affected by the surge in protectionism in the world, a person is more likely to take it lightly and classify it as ‘not a significant change’, however, we tend to be very pessimistic regarding the same phenomenon worldwide.

Thus, public perceptions can diverge largely from reality and make things look more gloomy than they actually are. 

This might be the reason why people are overreacting to the recent turn of events. Thus, people should refrain from making extreme judgements before taking all information into account. After all, everything need not be categorised as black or white.

(Shreshtha Mishra is an undergraduate student of Economics at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She can be reached at @rcmishra33. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)