On preference falsification

Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideas hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have you ever had a meal that you didn't enjoy, but pretended to when asked by the waiter at a restaurant or the host at their home? How about a gift from a friend or loved one that you felt indifferent about? Most of us have engaged in what’s known as preference falsification at various times in our lives.

Preference falsification, a term coined by economist and political scientist Timur Kuran, states that people will often lie about their preferences or opinions to conform to social norms. Kuran theorizes that a person’s decision to falsify or express their true preference on a given topic depends on the interplay between how it impacts their status in the group or community, their desire to be honest about how they truly feel, and how much the preference matters to their identity and overall well-being.

Lying about whether you enjoyed a meal or liked someone’s gift is relatively trivial, but preference falsification can have serious consequences when it happens at a mass scale on important social issues. For instance, a majority of Americans, regardless of race, believe that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college acceptance decisions. But because affirmative action is a hot-button topic, few have been willing to state their covert preference overtly for fear of social backlash.

There also appears to be a clear correlation between a society’s value for individual rights and freedoms and the prevalence of preference falsification. Consider totalitarian regimes like North Korea. Publicly expressing a dissenting opinion carries dire, life-threatening repercussions. Most people are understandably not willing to put their lives in danger. In the United States, on the other hand, hidden sentiments generally don’t stay hidden for too long. In 2016, despite polls predicting otherwise, Donald Trump won the Presidential election, surprising even his supporters. It was clear that a significant percentage of respondents were not expressing their true preference in polls, perhaps out of fear of being judged.

The solution isn't necessarily to be completely honest all the time. Expressing one's preferences without any filter can sometimes be incompatible with creating a respectful, well-functioning society with a diversity of constituents — no one wants QAnon-like ideas to proliferate. However, I think on balance it is better to have opinions, even those that are uncomfortable or controversial, out in the open so that they can be judged collectively rather than in private.

Personally, learning about preference falsification has helped me reflect on which of my stated preferences I truly believe in, rather than just something I'm going along with to fit into a particular group. And it has also got me thinking: which of today’s widely held public opinions are less secure than they seem?

For more, check out my related post on the Overton window.