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Using misperceived social norms as a license: does pluralistic ignorance trigger complacency in the food environment?

ABSTRACT The current food environment strongly communicates the normality of consuming unhealthy and unsustainable food products. However, it is unclear whether people truly support this unhealthy and unsustainable social norm, or that they follow the norm (reluctantly) because they believe that other people agree with it, a phenomenon that is generally known as pluralistic ignorance. While previous research has documented the existence of pluralistic ignorance in a variety of settings, it is unknown to what extent it directly influences behavior and which mechanism may account for this influence. The present study examines whether the perception that others seem to agree with unhealthy and unsustainable eating norms acts as a license to not change one’s eating behavior and leads to complacency. We assessed pluralistic ignorance by comparing self- and other-scores on the importance, frequency, normalcy, and intentions dimensions of consuming healthy and sustainable food in a large sample of Dutch participants (N = 415). To investigate the effect of pluralistic ignorance on self-licensing and complacency, we calculated healthy and sustainable ‘misperception scores’ per dimension. Healthy eating misperceptions only marginally predicted self-licensing, but healthy misperceived intentions did predict an increase in complacency. Sustainable eating misperceptions seem more influential because misperceptions on importance and frequency predicted an increase in self-licensing, and sustainable misperceived normalcy predicted a decrease in complacency and intentions predicted an increase in complacency. These findings suggest that pluralistic ignorance may be more influential in sustainable eating since people could be uncertain what appropriate sustainable food choices are. Prospects for future research and suggestions to address pluralistic ignorance to potentially increase healthy and sustainable food choices are discussed.

Open Access