Preference falsification is the act of communicating a preference that differs from one's true preference. The public frequently conveys, especially to researchers or pollsters, preferences that differ from what they truly want, often because they believe the conveyed preference is more acceptable socially. The idea of preference falsification was put forth by the social scientist Timur Kuran in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies as part of his theory of how people's stated preferences are responsive to social influences. It laid the foundation for his theory of why unanticipated revolutions can occur. The concept is related to ideas of social proof as well as choice blindness.
According to the theory, when articulating preferences individuals frequently tailor their choices to what appears socially acceptable. In other words, they convey preferences that differ from what they genuinely want. Kuran calls the resulting misrepresentation "preference falsification". In his 1995 book, Private Truths, Public Lies, he argues that the phenomenon is ubiquitous and that it has huge social and political consequences. These consequences all hinge on interdependencies between individuals' decisions as to what preference to convey publicly. A person who hides his discontent about a fashion, policy, or political regime makes it harder for others to express discontent.
One socially significant consequence of preference falsification is widespread public support for social options that would be rejected decisively in a vote taken by secret ballot. Privately unpopular policies may be retained indefinitely as people reproduce conformist social pressures through individual acts of preference falsification.
In falsifying preferences, people hide the knowledge on which their true preferences rest. In the process, they distort, corrupt, and impoverish the knowledge in the public domain. They make it harder for others to become informed about the drawbacks of existing arrangements and the merits of their alternatives. Another consequence of preference falsification is thus widespread ignorance about the advantages of change. Over long periods, preference falsification can dampen a community's capacity to want change by bringing about intellectual narrowness and ossification.
The first of these consequences is driven by people's need for social approval, the second by their reliance on each other for information.
Kuran has applied these observations to a range of contexts. He has used the theory developed in Private Truths, Public Lies to explain why major political revolutions catch us by surprise, how ethnic tensions can feed on themselves, why India's caste system has been a powerful social force for millennia, and why minor risks sometimes generate mass hysteria.
The idea of preference falsification has been studied by a number of social scientists. Economist Robert H. Frank reviewed Timur Kuran's book and offered his own thoughts on the political economy of preference falsification. William Davis considered preference falsification within the economics profession.
According to a 2020 study, the vast majority of young married men in Saudi Arabia express private beliefs in support of women working outside the home but they substantially underestimate the degree to which other similar men support it. Once they become informed about the widespread nature of the support, they increasingly help their wives obtain jobs.
- Kuran, Timur, Private Truths, Public Lies, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
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- Bursztyn, Leonardo; González, Alessandra L.; Yanagizawa-Drott, David (2020). "Misperceived Social Norms: Women Working Outside the Home in Saudi Arabia". American Economic Review. 110 (10): 2997–3029. doi:10.1257/aer.20180975. ISSN 0002-8282. S2CID 224901902.