Social Undesirability Bias
By Bryan Caplan
When the truth sounds bad, people lie. They lie to others. They lie to themselves. That’s the essence of Social Desirability Bias, one of the most powerful forces in the social world. Politics without Social Desirability Bias would be almost unrecognizable. Just imagine a world where politicians frequently said, “We use too many resources on medicine and education,” “Most people are perfectly able to provide for their own retirement,” and “Statistically, terrorism is no big deal.” Few people will vote for effective policies they’re ashamed to pronounce – or even think.
If you spend a little time on the internet, you’ll find exceptions. Happily, you’ll notice people who value being right more than sounding good. If you search longer, however, you’ll bizarrely discover people who gravitate to views that sound awful. When the truth sounds good, they deny it. When an ugly view has a kernel of truth, they proclaim it universal law. Maybe they’re trolling, maybe they drink their own Kool-Aid. Either way, a sliver of humanity vocally exhibits Social Undesirability Bias. They lie to themselves and others when the truth sounds good.
Social Undesirability Bias, like Social Desirability Bias, can be hard to pinpoint. Don’t you have to figure out the truth in order to know who’s “biased” and in which direction? You do. But humans are so prone to hyperbole that canonical examples of Social Undesirability Bias are all around us.
When people look at multi-ethnic societies, and assure us that full-blown race war is “inevitable in the next few decades,” they’re guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.
When people look at international relations, and proclaim that the deaths of millions of innocents is our only hope for peace and prosperity, they’re guilty of Social Undesirability Bias. (Yes, I have heard this homicidal lunacy privately voiced several times).
When people look at millions of desperate Syrian refugees, and insist that they’re going to “ruin our institutions” if we grant them refuge, they’re guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.
When people look at rapid increase in the use of fossil fuels in the developing world, and declare that mankind will ultimately be poorer as a result, they’re guilty of Social Undesirability Bias.
Are my examples of Social Undesirability Bias mere straw men? Maybe they’re a straw man of you. But they’re not a straw man of a bunch of other people in your intellectual tribe. And if you team up with them, their biases become your biases by osmosis. To quote 8mm, “If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.”
The saddest thing about Social Undesirability Bias is that it often begins as a well-founded revolt against Social Desirability Bias. Intelligence research, for example, is a fountain of truth. It’s maligned because saying, “Individuals and groups fail because they’re stupid” sounds bad. After enduring unjustified abuse, however, I’ve noticed that IQ fanboys start gravitating to misanthropic hyperbole. A mild form: Cavalierly claiming that modestly below-average IQ workers have “zero marginal product.” An egregious form: Gleefully claiming that mankind’s total utility would be higher if below-average IQ workers had never been born.
Sometimes we face tragic choices. This is a pervasive truth that Social Desirability Bias spurs us to deny. At least in the modern world, though, we usually don’t face tragic choices. If your go-to solution to social problems is to kill people, sterilize them, or trap them in a war zone, you are not seeing the world clearly. Social Undesirability Bias is far less prevalent than Social Desirability Bias. But it still unhinges many a brilliant mind.
P.S. Feel free to prove the non-existence of Social Undesirability Bias by being scrupulously civil and fair-minded in the comments.