The Diction of Social Desirability Bias
By Bryan Caplan
“Sorry, I can’t come to your party.” This common excuse is almost always literally false. You’re working? Unless your boss chains you to your desk, you can come to the party. You’re in Paris, and the party’s in DC tomorrow? If you can beg, borrow, or steal airfare, you can come to the party. The same goes for most social uses of the word “can’t” – everything from “We can’t be together” to “I can’t help myself.”
Why say, “I can’t” when the truth is “It’s too costly for me” or “I don’t feel like it”? Because “I can’t” sounds better. It insinuates, “The only reason I’m not doing X is because I lack the ability to do X. Otherwise I would totally do it.” “It’s too costly for me” and “I don’t feel like it” are insulting by comparison. Both blurt, “X simply isn’t my top priority. Get used to it.” In short, the way we use the word “can’t” is a clear-cut case of Social Desirability Bias: our all-too-human propensity to lie when the truth sounds bad.
The literally-false “can’t” is hardly alone. Social Desirability Bias permeates our diction – i.e., the specific words we choose to use. Consider the following expressions:
1. “I’ll do my best.” Unless you devote 100% of your resources to success, you haven’t really done your best, have you? But it sure sounds nice. The same goes for “We’re doing everything in our power,” “I’ll stop at nothing,” and the like.
2. “We have no choice.” Unless there is literally only one thing you are capable of doing, you have a choice. So why claim otherwise? Probably because you’re doing something that seems wrong, and you don’t feel like justifying your action as the lesser evil. The same goes for “We were forced to do it” and “I simply have to do this.”
3. “Nothing is more important to me, but…” If nothing is more important, you will sacrifice everything else you have to get and keep X. So unless you’ve given your all for X, you’re overstating it’s importance. As Social Desirability Bias predicts, X is generally something high-minded: God, country, and family top the list. “I’ll pay any price for X” and “You can’t put a price on X” work the same way.
4. “X is unacceptable.” People are capable of accepting almost anything; where there’s life, there’s hope. But they’d like much much more. People who put the “unacceptable” label on an unfavorable deal are covertly bargaining. Why? Because it’s less confrontational to plead, “I’d take your offer if I could. But my hands are tied” than “Show me the money!”
The diction of Social Desirability Bias fits neatly with my skeptical take on addiction – and mental illness generally. To my ears, “I can’t stop drinking” directly parallels “I can’t come to your party.” Of course you can refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages. And of course you can attend my party. But if you declare, “I’d rather stay home and drink alone,” you sound bad and listeners get mad.
In Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Philinte insists,
In certain cases it would be uncouth,
And most absurd to speak the naked truth;
With all respect for your exalted notions,
It’s often best to veil one’s true emotions.
Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone?
Philinte’s right as far as he goes, but he misses a deeper issue. When we let Social Desirability Bias rule our diction, there’s a grave danger our literally false words will corrupt our thinking as well. Indeed, such corruption is all around us.