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20210815 – The Social Consequences of Preference Falcification




The main idea of this book is that in any society there are two different opinions: Private Opinion within mind of each individual based on this individual’s Preferences and Public Opinion that may or may not coincide with Preferences of any individual, but is generally accepted as dominant and therefore supported by variety of tools of coercion from very soft disagreement to secret police executing on the spot any defiant. As result at least some share population uses Preference Falsification: openly and often loudly expressing different and even opposite opinions than ones this person really has. The result is in the mild case inefficient functioning of the society when actions somewhat deviate from pronounces, but in the severe case it could be sudden revolutionary explosion with massive restructuring of the society. The mild case is typical for Democracies where suppression of defiant opinions is moderate, while the revolutionary explosion often happens in totalitarian and/or autocratic societies where suppression is quite hard.    


I. Living a Lie

1. The Significance of Preference Falsification

In the first chapter of this book author defines the meaning of key notion of this book: “preference falsification, the act of misrepresenting one’s genuine wants under perceived social pressuresPreference falsification aims specifically at manipulating the perceptions others hold about one’s motivations or dispositions”. In other words, it is a form of lying under social pressure and/or threat of negative impact on one’s wellbeing as punishment for being honest.

After defining the main notion, author then presents objective of this book:” to classify, connect, and explicate the unintended consequences of preference falsification. How, precisely, does preference falsification affect the mechanics of politics? How does it influence the evolution of public opinion? What are its implications for the efficiency of social policies and institutions? To what extent and by what mechanisms does it transform beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews? Finally, does it facilitate or hinder efforts to predict and control the social order?” After that author provides a number of real-life examples:

  • Religious dissimilation
  • Veiling in Turkey
  • Gay officials outing by gay rights movement in USA in 1990s

Author also discusses various technics applied either to make sure that expressed preference would not hurt expressor:

  • Leaks and Trial Balloons
  • The Secret Ballot, Blind Refereeing, and Secluded Negotiations

At the end of chapter author discusses the social effects of Preference Falsification and presents overview of the book:

  • Chapters 2–5 explore how public opinion emerges from the interdependent public preference choices of individuals.
  • Chapters 6–9 explore collective conservatism: widespread public support for policies that would be rejected in a vote taken by secret ballot
  • Chapters 10–14 explore how preference falsification affects private preferences.
  • Chapters 15–18 explore how preference falsification shapes patterns of social change.

2. Private and Public Preferences

Here author starts by defining private and public preferences, noting that it is highly dependent on culture and state power which is which. His example: pork chops is private preference in USA, but public preference in Saudi Arabia.

Author then discusses mechanics of public preference and defines notion of Intrinsic Utility as some point among continuum of choices that makes individual happiest:

Then author defines Reputational and Expressive Utilities, the former maximizes individual’s reputation among others, while latter individual’s self-respect: the necessary condition for psychological well-being.

Here is the graphic representation:

Author then discusses possibility and even necessity of Preference falsification for individual to maximize total utility. Author also provides a beautiful example of multifaceted Preference Falsification:” In 1989, a Soviet citizen admitted to having worn “six faces” under communist repression: “one for my wife; one, less candid, for my children, just in case they blurted out things heard at home; one for close friends; one for acquaintances; one for colleagues at work; and one for public display.”

Author also discusses how Intrinsic Utility often manipulated by limiting access to information or providing false information, especially in totalitarian and authoritarian societies. At the end of chapter author looks at social sciences that look at individual’s utility from different angles often ignoring reality that everything is intertwined:” The foregoing model depicts the individual as having multiple sources of happiness: economic, social, and psychological. These three sources have tended to be studied within separate disciplines that differ in their conceptions of the individual. Homo economicus is a self-controlled, calculating utility machine, who is immune to social pressure and a stranger to inner turmoil. Homo sociologicus, his very identity the product of social stimuli, is ruled by social demands. And a common conception of homo psychologicus is as an impulsive and tormented soul, struggling, seldom successfully, to escape the dictates of his conscience. However simplistic, these constructs provide valuable insights into human behavior. Yet they obscure as much as they enlighten. A more composite construct allows glimpses, we shall see, into phenomena that its unidisciplinary rivals oblige us to ignore.”

 3. Private Opinion, Public Opinion

Author begins this chapter by providing definition:” An activity forms a political issue if it is a matter of social concern, a nonissue if it is widely considered a matter of personal choice.” He then discusses limitations on public issues and paradox of people getting involved with public issues even if these issues have little impact on their lives, Author then links this phenomenon to Expressive needs of individuals that causes them to become activists. The next point of discussion is formation of the pressure groups that separates public and private opinion by creating cultural pressure to join one position or other that results in polarization of public opinion even if private opinion distributed evenly:

4. The Dynamics of Public Opinion

In this chapter author discuss the process of formation of public opinion via enforced Preference Falsification necessary to maintain belonging to a group in which some public opinion becomes dominant. As result population is initially divided into groups around different opinions based on individual threshold. Author provide graphic and explanation of movement of public opinion to position when it is dominant, even if it represents minority opinion:” Remaining focused on Figure 4.3, imagine that the expected public opinion somehow starts out at 20. The propagation curve indicates that 35 percent of the population has a threshold at or below 20. So, this share of the population will give its public support to 100 and the remaining 65 percent will support 0. An expectation of 20 has thus generated a public opinion of 35. Having turned out to be an underestimate, the initial expectation will be revised upward. According to the figure, any expectation below 40 will fall short of the corresponding realization and generate further revisions. To become self-fulfilling, and thus self-reproducing, the expected public opinion must rise to 40. The figure shows Ye = 40 to lie at the only intersection between the propagation curve and the diagonal. So there is a single self-fulfilling expectation, a unique equilibrium.7 Only when individuals base their public preferences on the expectation of a public opinion of 40 does actual public opinion match the expectation that generated it. Panel B of Figure 4.3 uses a topographic metaphor to capture the movements of public opinion. It depicts a valley whose lowest point is at 40. If a ball is placed at 40, it will remain at rest indefinitely. Placed anywhere else, it will roll toward 40.”

Author then discusses details of this process and expresses caution against incorrect perception of public opinion:” The human tendency to underemphasize the external determinants of human choices and overemphasize the internal determinants is known as the fundamental attribution error. The normatively correct principle of attribution calls for caution in ascribing an act to the actor’s personal disposition insofar as that act is typical.”

5. Institutional Sources of Preference Falsification

Author begins this chapter by pointing out institutional difference in imposing Preference Falsification between democratic and totalitarian countries: relatively soft pressure in former and deadly violence in latter. After that author discusses Expressive constrains from Athenians ostracizing individuals with unpopular opinions to McCarthyism in USA and Official responses to Public and Private opinion, which is very different in democracies when leaders have a lot less tools to form opinions via disinformation and suppress challenging opinion carriers by force. Nevertheless, even in democracies Preference Falsification is widely used and author discusses remedies that could minimize damage caused by this phenomenon. Such remedies include first of all the Secret Ballot and traditions of Tolerance to different opinions. The real practical use of these remedies is rarity that happens only in democracies and even in this case they are very fragile. Author refers here to American constitution and intention of its framers to use clash of ambitions to save democracy, but he also notes that maintaining democracy requires general agreement on fundamentals, which is often just not possible.  

II. Inhibiting Change:

6. Collective Conservatism; 7. The Obstinacy of Communism; 8. The Ominous; Perseverance of the Caste System; 9. The Unwanted Spread of Affirmative Action

In this part author discusses situation when Public Opinion remains stable for a long time after Private Opinion had changed, sometimes dramatically. The main reasons for this usually established historical narrative, spiral of prudence when individuals disenchanted with status quo believe that they are small minority when in fact the majority of people unhappy, but remain silent or falsify their preference.  There is also unequal distribution of opinions among generations and other processes that impact willingness of individuals to support or resist change such as Conservatism, Traditionalism, Persistence, and Rigidity. Here is graphic representation of this process:

Then author reviews real life examples of such processes: Communism in Soviet Block, Caste system in India, and Affirmative actions in USA.

III. Distorting Knowledge:

10. Public Discourse and Private Knowledge

In this part author discusses impact of Preference Falsification not only on Public Discourse, but also on Private knowledge and opinion. Here is authors formulation:” …preference falsification can alter the appearance of one’s personality without modifying its essence. Yet in practice preference falsification does affect private preferences. It distorts public discourse—the corpus of assertions, arguments, and opinions in the public domain. In turn, the distortion of public discourse transforms private knowledge—the understandings that individuals carry in their own heads. The transformation of private knowledge ends up reshaping private preferences.” Author then discusses human cognitive processes that are susceptible to external influences via such processes as framing or accepting externally imposed overall model of reality, but only to the extent that this model possesses at least somewhat effective predictable power and help individual achieve his/her objectives.  Author discusses in some details the role of deception, censorship, and general political illiteracy resulting from dependency of individuals on information provided by society. In this context author discusses Heuristics of social proof and its use in politics of Persuasion. Author also applies notions of hard and soft knowledge:” Hard knowledge is grounded in substantive facts and systematic reasoning. By contrast, soft knowledge is grounded in one or more forms of social proof. Either type of knowledge may be erroneous, of course. Just as the causes of a social phenomenon may be misperceived, perceptions of public opinion may be substantially off. In practice, moreover, “hardness” and “softness” form a continuum. Beliefs concerning social phenomena are ordinarily based both on personal observation and on perceptions of what others think.” Author also discusses Believe Perseverance. That is tendency of people to fit new information into existing framework of believes, even if this information completely contradictory to these believes. Overall author rejects idea of individual autonomy and objective interests noting impact of the Public opinion imposed by powers that are on individuals believes, even if they are hidden from external control.

11. The Unthinkable and the Unthought;

Here author discusses cognitive limitations and provides definitions:” An unthinkable belief is a thought that one cannot admit having, or even characterize as worth entertaining, without raising doubts about one’s civility, morality, loyalty, practicality, or sanity. An unthought belief is an idea that is not even entertained.”

After that author discusses technics of using Knowledge falsification so the Public Discourse could be distorted, consequently leading to reshaping Soft Knowledge of individuals. From here comes Cognitive dissonance. Which is basically conflict in the mind of individual between Soft and Hard Knowledge this individual possess. Here is how author presents this:” The distortion of public discourse thus affects both hard and soft knowledge, but through different mechanisms. Soft knowledge changes readily because its mobility is constrained only by difficulties in ascertaining the course of public opinion. And in any case, perceptual obstacles lose significance where public opinion shifts massively. In contrast to soft knowledge, hard knowledge does not necessarily move with perceived shifts in public opinion. Someone with information favorable to a certain program will not lose faith in it merely because public opinion now favors an alternative. His faith in the program may be shaken, however, and he may be unable to discover new justifications for rejecting the alternative.”

Author however rejects idea of Cognitive dissonance because he believes that people can easily entertain multiple contradictory ideas at the same time.  Here is his position:” When a person’s beliefs change this happens not through his own personal efforts but, rather, through a social process in which he is just one of many participants. If public discourse treats two issues as unrelated, he is apt to do the same, because he cannot explore all possible connections. He may well remain unaware of important connections without feeling any discomfort. In a vast array of contexts, the linkages individuals make among events, outcomes, and phenomena are governed largely by public discourse. Where public discourse is itself inconsistent—as when it promotes the literal accuracy of the Bible while also celebrating the explanatory power of modern biology—people may not even notice the contradiction. Many will do so, however, if the inconsistency begins to receive public attention.”

Author also reviews process of shifting some ideas from unthinkable to unthought, creating ideological gap between generations with shifting of Private Preferences. Author then review this process in details with graphs and theoretical example.

12. The Caste Ethic of Submission; 13. The Blind Spots of Communism; 14. The Unfading Specter of White Racism

In these chapters author reviews actual examples of developments in various societies to demonstrate how it all works in reality.

IV. Generating Surprise: 15. Unforeseen Political Revolutions;

This part is very interesting because it demonstrates how seemingly invincible totalitarian or authoritarian society with powerful police, mass indoctrination, and routine Preference Falsification could suddenly explode and change nearly overnight. Author defines simplified forces within society this way:” The dual preference model of this book posits a predefined issue on which there is a political struggle between two pressure groups. For this chapter and the next, the issue is the incumbent political regime’s legitimacy. The two pressure groups are the government, which recognizes its own right to govern, and the opposition, which does not. Within this particular context, Y, our measure of public opinion, represents the size of the public opposition to the government. As usual, it is expressed as a percentage of the population. At the start of our story Y is near 0, indicating that the government commands almost unanimous public support. A revolution would take the form of a sudden and enormous jump in Y that makes it impossible for the government to continue governing. By this definition, revolution entails a mass-supported shift in political power. It is immaterial whether the transfer of power brings about meaningful change in people’s lives. All that matters is that the transfer be swift and extensive.”

Author provides very interesting graphic presentation of how small society of 10 people either explodes into revolution and moves from equilibrium Y=30 to equilibrium Y=90 or it remains in the same state depending on threshold of one individual c:

Author then discusses inessentiality of mass discontent, the role of political structure, and inevitability of combination of poor Foresight with Excellent Hindsight.

16. The Fall of Communism and Other Sudden Overturns;

In this chapter author provides real life examples of sudden revolutions.

17. The Hidden Complexities of Social Evolution;

This chapter expand discussion and here is how author defines it: “The purpose of this chapter is to extend and knit together the evolutionary themes of past chapters with an eye to generating further lessons for historical interpretation and social forecasting. I first introduce several complications into the basic framework, highlighting factors that make private preferences somewhat autonomous from public discourse, and actual public policies somewhat autonomous from public opinion. As in earlier contexts, it turns out that changes in one variable may have disproportionate effects on other variables. Turning attention to the circularities of the model, I explore the inefficiencies they produce and the added difficulties they pose for prediction and control. Among my key points is that discontinuities, unintended outcomes, and inefficiencies flow from a coherent social process. The whole chapter demonstrates, from a broader perspective than earlier chapters, that one can understand the complexities of social evolution without being able to pinpoint the causes of particular historical outcomes.”

He also provides graphic representation:

18. From Slavery to Affirmative Action

Here author applies his ideas to historical development of American race relations and Indian Caste system.

19. Preference Falsification and Social Analysis

In this final chapter author provides detailed description of his objectives:”

First, it highlights the ways in which the dual preference model serves to integrate disciplines and scholarly traditions often viewed as mutually incompatible paths to social understanding. I show how the model links traditions that focus on social structure with ones that emphasize individual choice. Drawing on properties of the model, I stress that structuralist and individualistic traditions should be viewed as complementary components of social analysis.

The second point of the chapter is that in illuminating past events and delineating future possibilities, the dual preference model also identifies certain limitations of scientific analysis. In particular, the model proposes that on sensitive issues pressures that breed preference falsification inevitably constrain what can be explained and predicted.

The chapter’s third task is to explore the measurability of preference falsification. To this end, it presents techniques for identifying and quantifying hidden perceptions, resentments, fears, and aspirations—some developed by anthropologists, others by opinion scholars. I argue that the techniques can be put to new uses in improving—up to a point, of course—our capacity to explain and predict social evolution.

Finally, I address the matter of refutability. Can the arguments be disproved? What tests may be used to establish their significance or insignificance? Because concepts such as concealment, cognitive limitations, small events, complexity, and unpredictability have played essential roles, the last task should be of special interest to readers inclined to deny scientific status to theories that involve poorly observable variables.”

At the end author lists multiple movements around various issues that all strive to achieve position of dominance when their opponents would have to use Preference Falsification in order to survive, therefore opening road for society’s change in whatever direction leaders of these movements want.


I think this is one of the most insightful books on human interactions in society that I ever read. It explains a lot of human behavior that I observed growing up in totalitarian Soviet Union when Preference Falsification was at the highest conceivable level. At the same time, it was Soviet Union of 1950s and 60s in which telling joke about leadership and discussing real condition of the country did not mean death sentence or even serious negative consequences for career, providing discussion was non-public. It was a very interesting society in which history was mainly false with great many factual events never mentioned, formerly great leaders’ images removed from photos, and official party papers and materials published just a few years ago not available in libraries except per special permission. In this society practically nobody believed that future is bright despite mass indoctrination and general believe that ideas of socialism and communism are great, and only general incompetence of leadership stands between people and prosperity. Eventually the moment when true believers such as Gorbachev, which naively accepted massive Preference Falsification as expression of true Preferences and opened gates for open expression of the Private Preferences, become the moment when system fall apart because it turned out that real socialism and communism were true Preference only of miniscule part of population. Interestingly enough this opening came from country leadership’s correct understanding that without valid information the competent management of economy and country is not possible combined with the lack of understanding that false information was foundation of socialist society without which it could not stand. We are now in the middle of a very interesting experiment when American elite intelligentsia and bureaucracy attempt to change society into some weird combination of economic capitalism and political socialism with pretention of being a democracy by using so far mainly non-violent coercive measures to push everybody into Preference Falsification to support this monstrosity. Nobody really knows what will happen, but my guess is that this attempt will fail and it will fail with such thunder that there will be no place for communism and socialism on this planet any more. 

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