This is a concept I often find myself trying to articulate in political discussions. You have a situation that everyone openly acknowledges, but it is so entrenched that people may paradoxically behave as though it were completely unimportant.

As a contrived example, for centuries the people of Helmetvania have all worn 6-foot-wide spherical helmets. There are lots of car accidents, neck problems are endemic, and people often complain about how silly it is to wear helmets. The hot topic in this year's election is whether non-helmet-wearing should be addressed by longer sentences, or better education on the importance of helmets.

It's somewhat related to the frog in slowly boiling water, or to not seeing the wood for the trees, but what I'm talking about is not a failure of perception; rather, it's a failure to take one's own perceptions seriously when they seem to be at odds with the world.

Are there good words, phrases or even extended references for this idea?

  • 3
    Never mind the frog! It's humans on slowly boiling planet! Jul 17, 2014 at 11:31
  • 4
    About that frog thing...
    – Gob Ties
    Jul 17, 2014 at 18:23
  • Climate change was indeed one of the real-life examples I avoided mentioning...
    – bobtato
    Jul 17, 2014 at 23:12

13 Answers 13


How about "the elephant in the living room"? This refers to something that everyone ought to be talking about, but no one is.

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    The phrase as I usually hear it is "elephant in the room", not "living room". The implication is that the elephant is in whatever room we are in now (it's large, noticeable, and right here with us, but nobody is talking about it) rather than in some specific other room (which somewhat weakens the metaphor).
    – Jason C
    Jul 17, 2014 at 15:32
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    FWIW, the OED mentions both "elephant in the room" and "elephant in the living room". I've only ever heard the former, though.
    – Curtis H.
    Jul 17, 2014 at 19:26
  • I think that "in the living room" is older usage. In the mid 20th century, the living room was where most of the talking was done. The term "living room" was itself an innovation some years earlier than that. The prior term was "parlor". Jul 18, 2014 at 7:48

This sounds like an instance of social cognitive bias. Depending on the specifics of the situation, different processes may be influencing the situation. In general, you could talk about groupthink.

  • The false consensus effect is the tendency for people to overestimate how much others agree with them.
  • Shared information bias means group members spend more time and energy discussing information that everyone is already familiar with (the situation that everyone acknowledges) but less time on information that only some members are aware of (suggestions for addressing the situation).
  • Optimism bias means you are over-optimistic, focus on pleasing outcomes rather than ones which might make you uneasy.
  • In normalcy bias, you refuse to consider a disaster which has never happened before.
  • The mere exposure effect causes people to be unduly fond of things just because it is familiar to them.
  • Having to give up an object may cause greater discomfort than what you could gain by acquiring it, and may cause loss aversion.
  • The endowment effect is similar, making people demand more to give something up than what they would be willing to pay to acquire it.
  • Functional fixedness limits you to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used.
  • Conservatism or regressive bias means you overestimate high values and likelihoods and underestimate low values and likelihoods.

All of these terms (and other cognitive biases) may be applicable in different situations. I would choose a term depending on the situation and the type of audience you are addressing. Go from the general cognitive bias or groupthink to one of the more specific terms depending on how detailed you want to be.

I think another nice option is ostrich effect, which means ignoring an obvious situation. Or just speak about being in denial.

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    The skill of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand is its ability to block out the elephant in the room, the skeleton in the closet and the ghost at the feast, even when they are all staring it right in the face...
    – Erik Kowal
    Jul 18, 2014 at 5:08
  • +1 for mentioning a bunch of related effects. I'm not sure there's any one "right" phrase for this situation. Jul 18, 2014 at 16:36

The concept seems akin to the story of The Emperor's New Clothes, a tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

As this article in Wikipedia discusses, the story involves a pretentious emperor who wants the ultimate in fashion. He is fooled by con artists into believing that they have constructed clothing that is gorgeous, but people who are too stupid or unworthy will not be able to see it.

The swindlers pretend to drape the Emperor in the magic clothing. He cannot see it, but dare not reveal it. The Emperor then parades through the streets, with courtiers and subjects oohing and aahing over the fine outfit. Finally, a young child, who is unconcerned with what people think of him, points out that the emperor is naked.

SUPPLEMENT This story is akin to the proverb there's none so blind as those who will not see

A charming counterpoint is a cartoon by Gahan Wilson, depicting an artist painting in the open air. A bystander is looking puzzled at the canvas, which depicts monsters and grisly scenes, while the actual landscape is simply trees. The artist explains, I paint what I see.

  • The elephant in the room, the ostrich with its head in the sand, and the emperor with his new clothes all evoke part of what the question is getting at. For me, the supplement above that cites the proverb, there's none so blind . . ., nails it. Jul 22, 2014 at 23:00

From your description it appears that you are referring to the concept of a social or traditional taboo. In this case the taboo is represented by the inviolability of the centuries old custom of wearing the big helmets despite the obvious drawbacks.

A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing:

Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com


You might say the people that do not acknowledge the real/underlying problem are "beating around the bush".


Consider the term traduction, in its sense “Act of passing on to one's future generations”, which derives from an archaic sense of traduce: “To pass on (to one's children, future generations etc.); to transmit”. Note, among its senses, tradition has one that's related: “The act of delivering into the hands of another; delivery”.

Convention (“A generally accepted principle, method or behaviour”), conventionality (“The state of being conventional”), and peer pressure (“encouragement or influence by one's peers [eg] She vowed to give up drinking during the exam period, but eventually succumbed to peer pressure and was out drinking with her friends within a week of the resolution”) also are relevant.

Also consider inertia, “In a person, unwillingness to take action”, also “(medicine) Lack of activity; sluggishness; said especially of the uterus, when, in labour, its contractions have nearly or wholly ceased”, from which derives the saying, of one custom or another, that it exists for hysterical reasons.


I think you're talking about collectivism. People feel safe in the herd, though the herd does not recognize the individual, excepting in groups. Safety is an illusion, as the individual is pegged to the herd.

I think that social networking is a myth. It is everything but social. I do not try to control people in my social environs. Yet twitter, facebook, et. al. has cost many their livelihoods. That Axelle Ddespiegelaere, Kendall Jones, Nicolette Van Dam. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands.

These people did right by the mob, but the mob changed direction (in time), and they were trampled.


I'm answering my own question, but this is really halfway between a not-very-satisfactory answer and a clarification.

I was trying before to avoid inflammatory political issues, but this may have obscured the question. So as a less coy example, it seems to me that many people say drug prohibition is a mistake. They will say "ending prohibition would save thousands of lives" in one moment-- yet the next, they will vote for politicians whose only words on prohibition concern the best way to commit to it even further. In fact, until recently there wasn't any other kind of politician.

(I know not everyone will agree with that picture, but the question is how you'd describe such a situation if you did believe it to exist...)

I'd argue that it's different to the Emperor's New Clothes or "the elephant in the room" because people are talking about it, but then somehow ignoring what they themselves have said.

Having a background in chemistry, I keep thinking of the metaphor of a supercooled liquid. In the right circumstances you can have water which is well below its freezing point, and ought to turn from liquid to solid, and yet... it just doesn't.

  • I know Noam Chomsky wrote a book called Manufacturing Consent, which sounds relevant. I may try to read it.
    – bobtato
    Jul 17, 2014 at 23:01
  • I +1ed that because it's definitely along the right lines, but no one of those specific biases seems to capture it.
    – bobtato
    Jul 17, 2014 at 23:11
  • Clarifications should really be in edits. I'm not sure why you think this is an answer (satisfactory or not), unless you're suggesting "supercooled liquid" as a possible phrasing. Jul 18, 2014 at 16:34

"A failure to take one's own perceptions seriously when they seem to be at odds with the world" lies at the heart of all kinds of prejudices and biases. Individually and collectively, people can persist in holding unquestioned assumptions despite the presence of contrary evidence. For example, people who have the experience of suddenly seeing someone previously, unthinkingly assumed to be "other" as instead "like me" may say such things as, "Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes," or "It was like a light came on and I could see for the first time." The same thing can happen with issues as well. On the American political scene, the words, "It's the economy, stupid," should resonate as a catchphrase intended to focus attention on what may otherwise be overlooked. Words or phrases that can be used for the *failure to take one's own perceptions seriously when they seem to be at odds with the world*might be to be blind or to have blinders on, to be blinkered or to have blinkers on, to be deaf, insensate, or dense.


My favorite metaphor for this phenomenon comes from an old joke about fish:

Two fish in a pond swim past each other. One says to the other, "How's the water today?" The other says, "What the heck is water?"

The idea is that it's difficult to see or acknowledge things that we take for granted. Ironically, the more ubiquitous something is, the harder it is to see it (or, in your example, to see that it is strange or silly). This leads to the phrase "[wearing helmets] is the water they swim in" (or, equivalently, the air they breathe), to denote that it is difficult for people to see that something everyone does may be unusual or unnecessary, even if they privately suspect it.


Sociopathic? Insane? Delusional?


Turning a blind eye to [something].

Hidden in plain sight.


I would use "widely held conventions", or "widely held beliefs" to describe them, despite their not being one word.

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