Mental Model: Preference Falsification

Preference falsification is 'the act of misrepresenting one’s genuine wants under perceived social pressures.' Timur Kuran has written a book entirely on this phenomenon. He founded this theory in order to explain unexpected revolutions. 

The logic goes something like this: (a) It is sometimes rational to hide beliefs due to loss of reputation or other social consequences. (b) Those that hide their discontent make it harder for others to express their discontent. (c) Some may remain silent of beliefs or others may outwardly express false-beliefs. (d) Unpopular opinions then become widespread and established as the norm.

Some great examples..

1. Argument Avoidance 

Someone pompously asserts that under socialism there would be no waste (referring to wasteful development projects in Latin America). Although you find the claim preposterous, you let it go unchallenged, to avoid sparking a divisive debate.

2. Safety

In the Christian reconquest of Spain, non-christians were being persecuted. Instead of fleeing, many Jews outwardly expressed Christianity while practicing their traditions in the home.

One illustration of preference falsification involves movements aimed at fostering religious conformity. Responding to the pressures exerted by such movements, heterodox believers have often sought refuge in dissimulation. The medieval world offers some poignant examples.

Around the time of the Christian reconquest of Spain, the Church launched a persecution campaign against the country’s non-Christians. It thus became increasingly unsafe to live in Spain as a practicing Jew or Muslim. Many Jews responded by fleeing abroad. But hundreds of thousands opted instead to accept baptism, testing their decision on a Judaic legal provision that allows dissimulation in times of danger. In those days, conversion was understood to imply a change not just of faith but also of lifestyle. Outwardly, therefore, the ostensible converts began to live as Christians. In the privacy of their homes, however, many continued to practice their ancestral rites, waiting for the day when they could revert to Judaism.

3. Social Shame

Sometimes, it is unwise to let others know what our preferences are, and we engage in. There are many possible situations in which this can occur. For instance, a teenager is shopping with her girlfriends whose taste in clothes is more flamboyant than her own taste. Telling her friends that she likes a pale blue button—down shin rather than the gaudy purple one in the window may lead to her being teased and made fun of.*

We must remember that it can be exceptionally hard to distinguish been true and false preferences.

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

*Social Development as Preference Management: How Infants, Children, and Adolescents Get What They Want From One Another by Rachel Karniol

Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change by Lan Cao


Timur Kuran, a Turkish American economist

Categorisation: social science → political science

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