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True Lies

Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification

By Timur Kuran
(Harvard University Press, 432 pp., $45)

A decade ago it was scarcely imaginable that, by 1995, apartheid would be eliminated in South Africa and communism would be deposed in Eastern Europe, and that both of these things would happen peacefully. As a Hungarian said a year after the revolution, "Everything has become so strange. A year ago, the Communists ran the country. Today, you can't find a Communist anywhere." Nor would it have been easy to predict, in the United States, that the Republican Party would control both houses of Congress, that smoking would be banned on domestic flights, that recycling would be nearly everywhere, and that affirmative action would be under sharp attack, above all in California.

How can societies experience such dramatic reversals in such short periods? In his inventive and sometimes astonishing book, Timur Kuran offers an answer--one that bears not just on revolutionary movements, but also on feminism, conformity, cognitive dissonance, the moral majority, "outing" homosexuals, rationality, hate speech codes, Gorbachev, hippies and the caste system in India (all of which make prominent appearances in these pages). Kuran begins with a simple, even mundane point: social pressures can make people say that they want and believe something that they really don't want or believe. In a Communist regime, for example, almost everyone may talk about the enormous wisdom and virtue of the leaders of the Party, even though almost everyone thinks that the leaders are scoundrels and fools. In a small town in America, nearly everyone may attend and pray in church, even if many people are unsure whether they believe in God. The result of social pressures is to produce what Kuran calls "preference falsification," a phenomenon that occurs when you make an inaccurate public statement about your actual preferences (or beliefs). Falsified preferences might be described more simply, of course, as lies; but they are a distinctive, and distinctly interesting, kind of lies, with particular social implications.

The most powerful pressures can come from government, which may take your life or your property; but government is hardly the only source of preference falsification. The perceived opinions of others very much determine what people say and do, even in the most democratic of democracies. Thus Kuran emphasizes an important and often neglected fact: that private pressure can impair liberty, and obstacles to free speech and honest interchange often come from our fellow citizens. The desire to protect one's reputation, by declining to say things that other people think bizarre or offensive, is deeply rooted in human beings; and so Kuran finds a crucial distinction between a person's private preferences (what he actually wants) and his public preferences (what he says, in public, that he wants). Much of the interest of Kuran's book is owed to his insistence, unusual and refreshing among economists (of whom he is one), that people's choices, and even their desires, are not given and fixed, but are a function of social conditions, above all the pressures imposed by other people.

In this light we can see that "political correctness" is not an isolated phenomenon, limited to the left. It is, in fact, ubiquitous. In some places in contemporary America, it is risky to say that you are a devout Catholic; in other places, you endanger your reputation if you say that you voted Democrat. Whatever you think about Malcolm X, or developments in the Middle East, or the regulation of pornography, you will put your good name on the line among some prominent people if, on such topics, you insist on saying what you really think. The point is not limited to politics. Whatever you think of the dinner and the conversation at your employer's party, you are likely to say that you enjoyed the food and the company much.

Kuran argues that preference falsification helps to guide, to stabilize, to constrain and to distort the existing social order. The Constitution's framers were entirely aware of the problem. In a step deplored by Jefferson, Madison closed the Constitutional Convention, so as to allow people to say what they really thought, without having to worry about public reactions. In the same way, secret ballots are designed to ensure that preference falsification does not happen; they allow people to vote as their conscience or their interest dictates. But if, as Justice Brandeis had it, "sunlight is the best of disinfectants," secret ballots are a mixed blessing, because it is sometimes valuable to hold judgments up for public scrutiny.

Kuran's real interest is not in moral evaluation, but in explaining individual and collective choices. To this end, he offers a simple economic framework based on three factors, which he describes (somewhat awkwardly) as intrinsic utility, reputational utility and expressive utility. A person's purely private preference is based on the intrinsic utility, to him, of the options under consideration. Some people really want to get rid of affirmative action or welfare programs, because they think that these are bad things, but their private preference may not be expressed publicly, because of the loss of reputational utility that would come from expressing it. The importance of reputational utility in a particular case depends on the extent of the risk to your reputation, and also on how much you care about your reputation. And people get what Kuran calls expressive utility from bringing their public statements into alignment with their private judgments. We all know people who hate to bow before social pressures; such people are willing to risk their reputation because what they especially hate is to speak or act in a way that does not reflect their true beliefs.

Kuran says that a person's choice of a public preference depends on these three variables, and hence that people's expressed views--their public preferences--are very much a product of what they think other people think. Kuran's psychology is crude and his basic intuition may appear obvious; and yet it casts light on many things, including the prospects for social stability and social change. As people's thoughts about other people's thoughts change, there is a shift in reputational incentives, and hence people's public preferences can shift: if you come to believe that there is a "silent majority" believing what you believe, you probably won't be silent for very long. For social change to occur, expectations are crucial, very much because they affect people's public preferences. And when people's perceptions of what other people think are shifting rapidly, there can be a bandwagon effect. These are all abstract points, but they bear on concrete events, including the fall of communism and apartheid and, more mundanely, changing norms involving smoking, discrimination, sneaker wear, the use of "Ms.," surprise best-sellers (and unread best-sellers) and recycling. In all of these cases, changing perceptions of other people's thoughts helped create a kind of cascade from one social state to another.

All this leaves an important question: Can public pressures affect private preferences as well as public preferences? Kuran thinks so, and he offers a subtle and intriguing explanation, focusing not on the concealment of private preferences but on their transformation. Let's start with individuals. Suppose that you tend to believe that women, like men, should be educated, and that everyone should have the chance to become literate regardless of gender. Suppose, too, that this belief is inconsistent with existing social pressures (as it is in many parts of the world). Eventually you may change your private belief, making it conform with those pressures. This is because it can be extremely frustrating, even distressing, to believe something that other people think implausible, offensive or stupid. In order to reduce cognitive dissonance, dissenters may bring their private preferences into line with perceived public opinion. And in this way people who are oppressed by the status quo can come to collaborate in their own oppression. Thus, in discussing the caste system in India, Kuran adduces evidence that "Hindu ideology has contributed to the untouchables' acceptance of their deprivations as fair, that it has made many treat their wretched existence as natural, and that it has facilitated their complicity in an order that degrades them."

But Kuran is interested not only in what happens with individual agents. He wants to explain also how certain private beliefs get lost or abandoned as the content of public information changes over time. If certain thoughts are "unthinkable"--in the sense that people who entertain them are seen as uncivil or immoral--they may eventually become "unthought," that is, they disappear altogether. And so social pressures can make certain ideas disappear from public discussion. As this happens, people become less conscious of the disadvantages of what is publicly favored and more conscious of the advantages. In the long run, private opinion itself moves against the thought that is publicly disfavored. If you have never heard that women should be educated equally with men, or that caste systems offend equality of opportunity, or that likes and dislikes are a function of social pressures, you may well not think of these things at all. Thus Kuran offers an account of how ideas can change across generations. In the end, the effects of public opinion on private preferences come from a collective process, in which millions of people affect one another's views through interdependent acts of knowledge and "preference falsification."

Kuran applies these basic ideas to three case studies: the fate of communism; the caste system in India; and the spread of affirmative action in the United States (which, in his view, was "unwanted"). The discussion of communism is a highlight of the book. Offering many vivid anecdotes, he shows that communism persisted not only, or not mostly, because of brute terror, but also because of a "pervasive culture of mendacity." People joined organizations they abhorred, followed orders they considered nonsensical, cheered speakers they despised and ostracized dissidents they greatly admired. How could this have been? Kuran shows that all this could not have been the consequence of terror--state resources were often far too limited for that--and that it was largely a product of widespread perceptions of what other people thought, or thought normal. Thus, for example, a unanimous vote of the Writers' Union denounced Boris Pasternak as an enemy of the Soviet Union for producing Doctor Zhivago, even though they widely admired the writer and his novel. There were countless similar examples. In the Soviet Union, of course, force was relevant; but preference falsification also played a role.

In some cases, preference falsification produces a situation of stability, but in other cases it is possible to get rapid, unforeseen, even unforeseeable shifts. Recall that public preferences are a function of what people think that other people think. It follows that when in Eastern Europe the level of apparent public opposition started to rise, people's public preferences changed quickly, as they came closer to their private preferences. Not only governments, but also policies, customs and fashions "can be abruptly abandoned when people who have helped sustain [them] suddenly discover a common desire for change." In fact, societies reach a tipping point when social pressures no longer support the status quo, but even undermine it. Eventually it is support for the status quo that produces reputational loss. (Think of recent civil rights movements for blacks and women.) Thus "a revolutionary bandwagon may help create the discontent that keeps it in motion. Switches from the government to the opposition may alert essentially content people to the government's failings; or they may make people who had been resigned to the status quo recognize the possibility of political change."

Kuran offers a similar explanation for the surprising longevity of the caste system in India. Within all castes, even lower ones, people are punished for expressing discontent and resentment. Above all, the threat of ostracism imposes great risks on anyone who showed disloyalty to his particular caste. It might seem that some group would break away from the system and create its own caste-free colony. But no such group can be created unless the individuals who would compose the group are willing to break away, and the threat of ostracism makes each potential member withhold participation until the project of breaking away seems likely to succeed. Since almost everyone sees this problem, no colony is formed. Taking issue with some common explanations, Kuran claims that the caste system is not economically efficient and that it does not maintain itself through any conspiracy from the top. It perpetuates itself because even subjugated castes uphold the system by punishing nonconformists.

Kuran thinks that the spread of affirmative action has also been made possible by preference falsification. Until recently, he says, affirmative action has not been subject to sustained social criticism, not least because those who express doubts have been treated as traitors to the cause or as racists. Kuran emphasizes in particular the lack of publicly expressed black opposition to affirmative action. In his view, this is a clear case of preference falsification, since blacks who challenge affirmative action risk ostracism from the civil rights community.

So much for Kuran's basic argument. A good test of a theory is whether it illuminates areas that it does not discuss. Measured in this way, Kuran's book is a terrific success. Consider the large effects of changing social norms and pressures with respect to smoking, the use of the term "African American," physical exercise, sexual harassment, statements of religious faith and diet. In all of these areas, we have seen bandwagon effects, even cascades, as people change both their acts and their statements in accordance with their perceptions about what other people think. Consider, too, the use, and the outcomes, of opinion polls. People may say they think something because of what they think other people think. This fact is yet another reason for concern about the pervasive use of opinion polls. Recent work even shows that the race of the interviewer much affects people's responses, a finding that supports Kuran's argument.

By drawing attention to the effects of social pressures, Kuran's discussion also illuminates an important mystery about the possibilities of law. There is an intriguing category of laws that are rarely enforced but that are seen to make a statement about what people think: mandatory seatbelt laws, laws requiring people to clean up after their dogs, laws banning littering, laws regulating places where people smoke. Whether or not they are enforced, such laws have large effects on people's perceptions of other people's attitudes; and in this way they affect behavior. The possibility of such laws also clears a greater space for democratic legitimation of new or emergent public convictions.

Of course an argument of this nature and scope raises many questions. Sometimes Kuran writes as if he is producing highly scientific accounts of stability and social change. But the underlying phenomena are diverse and unruly, and Kuran is only identifying a relevant factor in complex situations, rather than offering law-like generalizations about how societies change or stabilize themselves. A great virtue of his book is that it is much more systematic and rigorous than most discussions of these problems; but sometimes the analysis is too casual. Kuran seems a strong opponent of affirmative action, which is fine, but his own policy judgments make an excessive intrusion into his discussion of the underlying phenomenon. (He repeats the pervasive but utterly false claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was an opponent of race-conscious affirmative action policies. King strongly supported such policies.)

More generally, Kuran's treatment of the political dynamics of the affirmative action debate is too impressionistic and anecdotal. It is too simple to say that opponents of affirmative action have been shamed into silence. On the contrary, many of them, both white and black, have been vocal for a long time. At the same time it must be said that the attack on affirmative action, which is now very widespread, nicely confirms Kuran's point about the possible split between private and public preferences. A bandwagon effect is now occurring with great rapidity, to the point where, in many circles, people are under strong social pressure to oppose affirmative action policies, and those who defend those policies risk their reputations.

Kuran departs productively from traditional economists in refusing to see "preferences" as fixed and given. In his discussion of individual and social changes in preferences, he shows that they are very much a function of prevailing social norms. Unfortunately he mostly sticks with the economic tradition in seeing "preferences"--here "private preferences"--as the foundation of behavior. This oversimplifies reality. The term "preferences" includes many different things. It includes beliefs about facts as well as desires. And it includes emotional reactions, prominently involving shame (something with complex relations to "reputational utility"), as well as considered judgments about what is best; drives; whims; preferences about preferences ("I don't like opera, but I wish I did!"); crude self-interest; aspirations; and more. Some people even like to defy convention and see "reputational cost" as a great benefit, an important phenomenon to which Kuran pays too little attention.

From the psychological point of view, then, Kuran's division of the wellsprings of action into "private" preferences and "public" preferences is too crude. And there is a related problem. Kuran writes as if people make internal judgments that are purely "private." These are, in his view, "genuine desires." In his framework, these private judgments are compromised by external forces that lead to a statement about preferences that is "false." In a way, this is right and illuminating; but it is too simple. People's most private "preferences" are a product of a great many things, including public forces of various kinds. The privately held views of the racist may be a product of familial or local attitudes, and not in any deep sense genuine; the public taboo on public expressions of racism may be a good corrective, rather than an artificial, external intrusion onto something that deserves to be called "true." If my "private" judgment is that homosexuality is an illness, or that welfare benefits should not be reduced, or that the budget deficit is not a serious problem, I am probably reacting to an array of publicly asserted facts and values. Few of us have made fully independent judgments about public policy. Certainly our "private preferences" do not predate social interaction.

In fact, what Kuran sees as "public preferences" may be especially authentic. What people say in public can be a function of what they believe to be right or fair, whereas their "private preferences" may, even to them, seem selfish or invidious. A racist may have a "private preference" for a system of racial hierarchy, but some racists are ashamed of their racism, and hence their "public preferences" capture what, in a sense, they really think or think right. Most "preferences" are a function of the context in which they are expressed, and so Kuran's suggestion that private preferences are "true" and public preferences "false" is unconvincing. Sometimes the public preferences are authentic in the sense that they correspond to what people think, on reflection, to be best.

Kuran raises, but does not answer, another pressing question: Is "preference falsification" a good thing or a bad thing? Kuran's examples suggest that it is very bad; but as he is aware, no such judgment would make sense. For one thing, the answer turns partly on the content of the relevant social pressures. What sorts of "preferences" are being stigmatized? In most places, people are likely to feel under a good deal of pressure not to defend Hitler. That pressure should not be much mourned; it is a way of reflecting human learning and inculcating human decency (and also of economizing on discussion). By contrast, something has gone wrong if reasonable or good moral judgments cannot be expressed publicly, as, for example, in nations in Eastern Europe in which one could not criticize communism, or in the many parts of many nations where one cannot endorse feminism (consider the often-heard phrase, "I'm not a feminist, but . . .").

In this way, the social pressures that produce "preference falsification" should be evaluated partly by asking about substance: what sorts of things are causing reputational losses? But social pressures should not be evaluated only in these terms. It is most unfortunate if such pressures prevent people from saying and testing what they actually think, because a barrier to honest statements is an insult to people's autonomy, and because the public's capacity for deliberation and self-criticism will be severely undermined if a social taboo is placed on dissenting views. Too often, discussion is made impossible when social pressures make people act and talk as if they agree, when they do not.

We are living in a period in which an abstraction called "government" is under widespread attack and little attention is given to the effects of social pressures on human freedom and well-being. As Kuran shows, those pressures can make people say and do things that they abhor. And since social pressures can affect the development of preferences, government may have to act in order to allow people to overcome corrosive social pressures; consider recent official action with respect to cigarette smoking, unsafe sex, sexual harassment, environmentally irresponsible behavior, and even the failure to buckle seatbelts. It is not the least virtue of Kuran's book that it offers ample evidence that social pressures can be serious obstacles to liberty, and that in the face of such obstacles governmental efforts might actually promote freedom.

Cass R. Sunstein is the author of , forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

By Cass R. Sunstein