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Homeowner associations sometimes come under attack for suppressing Bill of Rights freedoms. Sometimes the accusation is one of principle (I'm not allowed to do what I want) rather than a specific instance (I'm not allowed to post signs). While the media makes it appear that this phenomena is pervasive, in reality, they are isolated cases caused by an overly aggressive board, member, or both, who lock horns. Most HOAs actually enjoy an incredible amount of consensus. And why is that? Is it a herding mentality?

According to ChangingMinds.org, "Groups all have norms of attitude and behavior which are shared and which help form the identity of the group. Adopting these norms, even if you do not agree with them, is a part of the individual sacrifice that people accept as a price of group membership. It is thus possible for groups to have norms which hardly anyone agrees with, but with which everyone conforms. These situations typically occur when the norms are older than all members of the group or when one member or a small group is dominant and can force their attitudes on the rest of the group."

This phenomena is called "pluralistic ignorance" (PI) by social psychologists. It is a state of mind in which people mistakenly think their own thoughts and feelings are different from those of people around them and look to others for cues instead of trusting their own instincts.

PI is particularly vexing when the situation involves imminent danger. When the danger appears to be ambiguous (unsure if the danger is real or perceived), the social rules of belonging and acceptance trump looking different or alarmist. Once the situation is correctly interpreted as dangerous, pluralistic ignorance fades and logic takes hold: RUN!

But can PI explain what goes on in homeowner associations? Do HOAs really adopt norms that few agree with but with which most conform? Well, yes and no. Norms come in all shapes and sizes. Some are contentious and others really don't matter that much. Most issues in HOAs simply aren't worth fighting over. There has to be some standard and while no standard will reflect everyone's standard, some standard is better than no standard. The driving consideration is whether the standard is "reasonable."

Humans seem to possess an innate sense of fair play. It's sometimes described as "live and let live." Part of that sense is the willingness to sacrifice a personally held belief for the greater good, as long as that sacrifice doesn't land too close to home. So, if the board enacts a policy that is "reasonable" (not hot, not cold but juuust right), most will accept it and move on.

On the other hand, those that have their closely held beliefs challenged or denied often respond aggressively, even taking the matter to court, or in a few extreme cases, resorting to killing. This much is clear: challenges to matters of principle can trigger disproportionately large responses. There are numerous court cases where extensive time and money (BIG money) has been expended to validate those matters of principle. But when the judge's gavel has fallen, win or lose, the adversaries will return to being neighbors trying to find a way to get along. Only now, a wall of pride usually takes the place of the contested principle. The feud isn't over by a long shot.

A survey once stated: "It's said that the two greatest problems in America are ignorance and apathy. What do you think?" Answer: "I don't know and I don't care." There is a degree of those attitudes in HOAs. It's not malicious. Some folks just aren't interested. That leaves HOA matters in the hands of the few that are. The rest mill around in the stockyard of apathy chewing their cud.

Of the few that remain, some serve on the Board and others watch what the Board does. Again, the watching generally is just that because most HOA Boards do pretty well about avoiding controversy. But sometimes the Board isn't handling business properly or at all. In an effort to avoid confrontation, some Boards neglect to collect money or enforce the rules. Board watchers are quick to blow the whistle.

But is anyone listening? Is pluralistic ignorance getting in the way? Or is it a lone voice crying wolf in the wilderness by throwing stones at glass houses? Holy mixed metaphor! Clearly, how well the Board manages business has a profound affect on the member home values and community livability. Whether the other members are engaged or not, it behooves the Board to strive for excellence.

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