Pluralistic ignorance in corporate boards and firms' strategic persistence in response to low firm performance

James D. Westphal, Michael K. Bednar

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This study examines how a social psychological bias referred to as pluralistic ignorance may occur in corporate boards and how this bias could contribute to strategic persistence in response to relatively low firm performance. Our theory suggests that under conditions of low performance, there may be a systematic tendency for outside directors to underestimate the extent to which fellow directors share their concerns about the viability of the firm's corporate strategy. This reduces the propensity for individual directors to express their concerns about the current corporate strategy in board meetings, decreasing the likelihood that boards will initiate strategic change in response to low firm performance. We also posit factors that may moderate the extent to which pluralistic ignorance occurs on boards. We suggest that demographic homogeneity among outside directors (with respect to gender, functional background, education, and industry of employment) and the density of friendship ties among them will significantly moderate the occurrence of pluralistic ignorance on boards. We test our hypotheses with original survey data from a large sample of outside directors at medium-sized U.S. companies and find support for our theory. We discuss contributions of our theory and findings to the literatures on corporate governance, strategic persistence and change, and group decision-making processes in organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)262-298
Number of pages37
JournalAdministrative Science Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration


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