Preference Falsification: A Case Study
By Bryan Caplan
If you haven’t read Timur Kuran‘s Private Truths, Public Lies, you should. It’s a classic of “obvious once you think about it” social science. In the face of social pressure – or brute force – people pretend to believe and want things that they don’t believe or want. Kuran calls this “preference falsification,” and applies it to many interesting cases: the collapse of Communism, Muslim veiling, and much more. After my recent Gilded Age adventures (here, here, here, and here, with a side trip to Pennsylvania Dutch country), I feel like I’ve got a better first-hand understanding of what Kuran’s talking about.
Background: I spent about a week wondering if my praise of David Boaz’s critique of libertarian nostalgia needed more qualification. I discussed the issue with several colleagues. I did some more background reading on coverture and related topics. Then I blogged my conclusions.
I expected many people to strongly disagree with me. I even expected some angry reactions. I was struck, though, by the array of social pressure I evoked: not just insults (e.g. “stupidest man alive“), but expressions of disappointment (e.g. “I thought you were better than this”) and attempts to shame me (e.g. “you’re embarrassing GMU econ”). The charitable interpretation is that critics are trying to give me an incentive to be a higher-quality thinker, but isn’t preference falsification a more likely response to such treatment? Indeed, as Kuran would predict, a number of bloggers and blog readers privately expressed their agreement with me. As long as the social pressure remains, however, they won’t be sharing their reasons with you.
Contrary to many people’s model of me, I don’t actually enjoy shocking people. One-on-one, in fact, I follow an “opt-in” rule of controversial conversation. But in allegedly truth-seeking forums – blogs, books, debates, seminars – I try not to think about whether my positions will offend before I express them. Kuran’s model fits a lot of what happens in the world, but I refuse to let it fit me.
P.S. What’s the best way to discourage others from encouraging preference falsification? At the risk of giving ammo to my colleagues who mischievously call me a “very Christian thinker,” I think the wisest course is to turn the other cheek. I will not call anyone else names, express my disappointment in them, or try to shame them. It’s no panacea, but it beats the alternatives.