Preference falsification

Understanding how public opinion can suddenly change

Published - March 09, 2022 10:30 am IST

Preference falsification refers to the tendency among people to keep some of their real thoughts and beliefs to themselves due to the fear of social backlash. 

Preference falsification refers to the tendency among people to keep some of their real thoughts and beliefs to themselves due to the fear of social backlash.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Preference falsification refers to the tendency among people to keep some of their real thoughts and beliefs to themselves due to the fear of social backlash. Some people may even decide to express opinions that they do not genuinely believe in to avoid upsetting others. Preference falsification is prevalent among those who hold minority beliefs that go against the flow of mainstream thought.

The term was coined by Turkish-American social scientist Timur Kuran in his 1995 book “Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.” Kuran defined preference falsification as “the act of misrepresenting one’s genuine wants under perceived social pressures.”

Preference falsification can turn out to be a self-fulfilling phenomenon. Note that people’s willingness to express their beliefs in public depends on their guess about the popularity of their belief among other people. For example, an individual who opposes lockdowns to tackle the coronavirus pandemic may be unwilling to express his opinion in public if he believes that most other people in society support lockdowns. And when everyone thinks that others hold a belief that is opposed to their own private belief, they will hide their true beliefs from others in society. In such cases, stated public opinion could even turn out to be something that is the exact opposite of what is the majority private opinion. So, even if most people in society oppose stringent lockdowns, the opposition may not be voiced openly due to the false fear that others support lockdowns to rein in the pandemic. This is why secret ballots can throw up surprising verdicts.

Sudden turnaround

The theory of preference falsification has been used to explain the occurrence of surprise events such as political revolutions. This was elaborated by Kuran in his 1989 paper “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution.” Kuran argued that political revolutions, whether it is mass protests that toppled communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe or the 1979 religious revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran, often happen suddenly at moments when they are least expected. This is because even when there is a certain belief that is widely held by people as their private opinion, this belief does not get expressed in the public space until a catalyst convinces people suddenly that the majority share the same opinion. The catalyst could be any event that convinces people that there exist enough people who share the same opinion that they hold, thus emboldening them to express their opinion openly. Kuran termed this sudden change in public opinion as a “preference cascade.” So, in other words, widespread beliefs that are held by people privately for a long time tend to be expressed suddenly in public space once people come to believe that many others share their opinions.

Preference falsification may also be used to explain the surprise victory of outlier candidates in democratic elections. The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. elections upsetting the predictions of almost all opinion polls is a good example. Voters who were unwilling to share their true beliefs in public for the fear of social backlash may have been willing to express their private beliefs in favor of Trump anonymously at the voting booth. The widespread prevalence of certain social views may also be explained by preference falsification. People living in conservative societies, for instance, may be more willing to adopt a more liberal lifestyle if they are convinced that others in their society are also willing to adopt such a lifestyle. Such awareness may help allay the fear of social ostracism. Some have even argued that preference falsification can explain the rise of right-wing politics in India. They say that the sudden rise of Hindutva politics may be attributed to the open expression of preferences that were earlier widely held by people but only privately. Social media, it is said, allowed many people to express their unpopular private opinions more freely in public space and this in turn convinced others who held those views privately to become more emboldened by it. Eventually, right-wing views influenced even electoral politics.

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