The Emperor’s New Clothes: Trump, The Media and the Problems of Pluralistic Ignorance

We all know the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Hans Christian Andersen’s very short narrative is a classic, and it should be. It presents us with an important lesson about human nature, and it’s a lesson that’s clearly not just meant for children. The problem is that it’s just a fairy tale. Many such tales try to appeal to our higher moral sense, what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” In most fairy tales, things work out pretty much to the advantage of the good, the brave, the loyal, etc. In Andersen’s story, things are supposed to work out well for the truth-telling boy, and by extension, all the people of the realm.

For a refresher, two swindlers pretending to be tailors convince the vainglorious daffodil of an emperor, a true fool, that they can create the most marvelous clothes anyone could ever want, and that their special virtue was that they could only be seen by those who were not idiots or unfit for their positions. The two swindlers are driven simply by greed. The emperor provides them with plenty of gold, which they then weave into gossamer belief, to their very great profit. We all know how the story goes. Every member of the court who goes to see the preparation of the magnificent clothes believes he sees nothing but air, but not wanting to be labeled stupid or unfit for his position, each one professes to be dazzled by the breathtaking colors and patterns. The emperor himself cannot see the clothes, but he agrees to wear them nonetheless, so great is his fear of being called a “fucking moron” by his minster of state, or having people say he’s unfit for his position. Out the door he goes to greet the adoring crowd, naked as a jaybird. Look at these clothes, he thinks. I have the best clothes. Everybody says so.

When the guileless boy points out that the Emperor is not wearing any fabric at all, the people gathered around suddenly realize that they’ve all known the same thing all along: that the boy is right and there are no new clothes. They begin to cry out in protest themselves. “Listen to the boy!” some holler. “He has nothing on!” They finally all shout out in unison. They will admit they’ve been fooled no longer, and thus innocence and the power of truth are vindicated. Andersen tells us nothing about the fate of the two swindlers, but he does say the emperor continues the parade. That is all.

The Real Story Behind the Story

For social psychologists, the story is a textbook example of pluralistic ignorance, a social phenomenon in which “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes” (Krech and Crutchfield, 1948). Where pluralistic ignorance occurs, great mischief often follows. Jens Ulrik Hansen elaborates: “pluralistic ignorance is the phenomenon where a group of people shares a false belief about the beliefs, norms, actions or thoughts of the other group members.” This sort of thing happens all the time, and most people follow at least some rules and norms not because they believe in and approve of them, but because everyone else seems to.

Pluralistic ignorance is a social phenomenon in which “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes”

The weakness of most of the textbook examples is that they portray pluralistic ignorance as what Hansen calls a fragile phenomenon. “In some versions of pluralistic ignorance,” he writes, “the mere awareness of the possibility of pluralistic ignorance is enough to suspend it” (3). But Hansen reminds us that pluralistic ignorance is not always so fragile, and that there is nothing in the definition of the phenomenon that “prevents the wrong beliefs of the agents from being quite robust” (8).

In another famous example — a situation I know well — a professor gives a brief lecture over some difficult material and concludes by asking the class if there are any questions. Each student feels more or less unsure of his or her understanding, but looking around, each student sees that no one else is raising a hand. All of the students conclude independently that they are the only ones who don’t get it, and so they all choose to remain silent rather than expose themselves as ignorant. In the view of many theorists, all it takes is one student to raise a hand and ask a question for the others to realize they are not alone in their confusion, and they will begin to ask their own questions in turn.

In this view, all it takes to remove the negative effects of pluralistic ignorance is for one person to share his or her personal belief and the other group members will realize their own beliefs do not in fact run counter to the prevailing view. The ignorance dissolves. Trust me, I have been that professor many, many times, and I have explained to a classroom full of confused students the clear disadvantages of pluralistic ignorance. It does not make them more eager to raise their hands. The phenomenon can be quite robust. In the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” all the people are freed from the swindlers’ charade when the truth-telling boy makes them rethink their appraisal of the public attitude. Like I said… fairy tale.

In the real world, as opposed to the fairy tale one, some mobs would just as soon stone the guileless boy to death for speaking so savagely against the great leader as admit they had been duped by a fraud and a charlatan, or that they had allowed the charade to continue long after everyone stopped believing in it. Then there is the problem of those who will continue to think that the clothes are real, and the boy is simply stupid, or unqualified… for something. At the very least, we could expect some of the people to start shouting the boy down. Somebody would want to slap his head and tell him not to talk about the emperor with such disrespect.

Others will react in an even more bizarre manner to the statement of the truth-telling boy. Some will regard the pronouncement of the guileless boy as a ploy, part of a plot by the emperor’s political opponents and the mainstream media to undermine the emperor, who is in reality the best emperor there ever was, and not an inch of him naked. They will believe they can see the marvelous colors and mesmerizing patterns. They will start shouting that the boy is “Fake News!” He’s shown himself to be an enemy of the people! some will think, and many will say. As Hansen shows — and I freely admit here my inability to fully follow Hansen’s demonstrations of formal logic, though I trust his conclusion — “to dissolve pluralistic ignorance requires more than the announcement of the subjective views of an agent.” (1)

Why Are We So Prone to Pluralistic Ignorance?

In other words, the power of the supposed remedy for pluralistic ignorance — someone airing a personal belief that shows the prevailing view is not what most assume it is — can be blunted simply by the presence of other social forces, such as social pressure to conform, emotions of embarrassment or humiliation, political factionalism, or even plain stupidity. These are the real problems of pluralistic ignorance. Calling it out requires either true courage or true innocence. Those are rare enough, but they are not often sufficient.

There is also the fact that being shown to have held a false belief tends to upset people. They hate to be embarrassed, and they will resist admitting it. Many cherish their beliefs too much to part with them willingly. A remedy that seems always to lead just as quickly to massive emotional upheaval and potential violence as it is to produce a just realignment is hardly a desirable remedy. Some people just can’t face reality after being swindled and humiliated. Some people are incapable of admitting they’ve ever made the wrong choice or trusted the wrong person.

And of course, at least a portion of the crowd is made up of actual idiots and fools. They think what they’ve been told to think by the people who tell them what to think, and they aren’t going to believe the evidence of their own lying eyes. As Hansen explains,

“Pluralistic ignorance is a case of systematic errors in norm/belief estimation of others. Thus, pluralistic ignorance is a genuine social phenomenon and not just people holding wrong beliefs about other people’s norms or beliefs.”

So, now we take that same situation Andersen sketched out in his fairy tale and adjust it for a better fit to the current reality. Here is the recipe: take the two swindlers — I like to think of one as a grifter and the other as a charlatan who work together to assuage their greed — and add the president, who thinks he’s an emperor, (still a daffodil, and still a true fool) and roll them all together into one person. Now the beneficiary (perpetrator) of the pluralistic ignorance, once its purported victim (though not the real victim), has a motive to get richer and maintain power by keeping all the dupes (you and me) in the dark about the real nature of the new clothes. He doesn’t want to respond to the truth-telling boy with shame and embarrassment, and he doesn’t need to. If you can’t feel shame, you don’t need to hide your nakedness. There is a clear motivation to weaponize pluralistic ignorance, to turn it from a social phenomenon into a rhetorical tool.

And there is a way to do it.

In fact, deliberately using pluralistic ignorance to quell dissent among the rabble and baffle one’s factional political opponents is probably best called some kind of en masse gaslighting. That makes it perfect for Donald Trump, since he’s obviously the gaslighter-in-chief. We’d like to believe that if everybody’s not fooled, then nobody’s really fooled, but pluralistic ignorance as a social phenomenon shows us that we can all act like we’ve been fooled even when we haven’t, as long as we are able to believe that everyone else in our group is on board and everybody who’s not one of us just doesn’t get it. Talk about a robust phenomenon.

“Many people are saying…”

“Public announcement of the true belief of some of the involved agents are not enough to dissolve pluralistic ignorance,” writes Hansen. “Either all the agents need to announce their true beliefs or new information has to come from an outside, trusted source” (12).

How do individual agents come to the wrong beliefs that they ignorantly attribute to other agents? One way agents get false beliefs about the beliefs of others, as Hansen explains, “is through testimony of facts by other agents in which the agent trusts.” (11) People come to have false beliefs about the beliefs of others simply because all the agents in one group share a common, trusted information source. No first-person, empirical observation is required, or even desirable. It’s better for the crook if you have to take his word for it, especially if his word is worth nothing. The truth is a cipher. False testimony from a trusted source leads some agents to falsely believe that everyone else in the group thinks the same way when they don’t.

In cases such as these, it should not be called pluralistic ignorance but rather participatory ignorance.

This is a standard rhetorical trick at Fox News, is it not? When their farcical opinion sharers assert ridiculously untrue things and report falsehoods as if they were facts, they always go out of their way to tell you that other people also believe this same false thing. “Many people are saying…” they always assure us. They use pluralistic ignorance to support the claim and perpetuate the lie. They do this to cover our unease at accepting information that violates the consistency of known facts, or defies common sense, or blatantly offends simple observation. “Many people are saying…” is the constant chant. Many people are saying the sky is no longer blue. What difference does it make what it looks like to you?

In fact, you could set your watch by how often Donald Trump justifies his false assertions by resorting to pluralistic ignorance. When the terrible tangerine toddler told us all on national television that he thinks he invented the word fake to describe the mainstream media, he clearly stated that it must be true — that he actually invented the word fake — because many people were saying so. This is a patent falsehood. We all know what the word fake means, but if Donald Trump had just made it up, as he claimed, none of us would have known what he meant. The statement must be false precisely because we understand it. What are we to make of such prima facie case of lying? It doesn’t matter: if many people are saying it, it just may be true. If you trust the source of the news, that’s enough. And don’t think Donald Trump doesn’t just make up words no one understands whenever he wants to. Covfefe?

Both the paranoid, strident branch of the right-wing media and the grifter-in-chief know very well that pluralistic ignorance is a potent thing. They know it is not necessarily fragile — that it can indeed be quite a robust phenomenon. Social pressure to conform, emotional resistance to admitting ignorance or changing belief, political hyper-factionalism and distrust in common information sources can and do make pluralistic ignorance a very effective tool in the mass gaslighting of the American public. If you can’t see the emperor’s new clothes, you must be an idiot or unfit for your job. Simple.

That little boy must be a cuck.


Krech, David, and Richard S. Crutchfield. Theory and Problems of Social Psychology. McGraw Hill Co., 1948.

Hansen, Jens Ulrik. “A Logic-Based Approach to Pluralistic Ignorance.” May 3, 2011.