A Conspiracy of Silence

We all self-censor at times. We keep quiet at dinner with our in-laws, or nod passively in a work meeting. But what happens when we take this deception of silence a step further, and pretend we believe the opposite of what we really feel? In this favorite episode from 2020, economist and political scientist Timur Kuran explains how our personal, professional and political lives are shaped by the fear of what other people think.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. All of us have had moments when we censor ourselves. A friend says something, we disagree, but instead of arguing, we smile and hide our discomfort. We go along to get along. There are times though, when we carry this deception a step further, we don't just smile and go along, we actively pretend we believe the opposite of what we really think. Why would we do that? Maybe we were attending a wedding and our hosts have prepared a special meal. We don't like it, but we say, "It's great." We feel it would be hurtful to say what we really think. Or maybe there's a new initiative underway at our company. We hate it, but we recognize that management won't look kindly at dissenters. So we pretend to like the plan.

At a larger scale, perhaps our country is doing something we detest, but protesting can get us in trouble with powerful people. So we pretend to be supporters. There are also times when we are the ones causing others to hide their true beliefs. We are the hosts at the wedding, or we are the ones who are enthusiastic about a new initiative at our company or a new policy in the country. Others pretend to agree with us because they are afraid of what we might think of them, afraid of what we might do.

This week on Hidden Brain, how our personal, professional, and political lives are shaped by the fear of what other people think.

Bob Corker: I would bet that 95% of the people on this side of the aisle support intellectually this amendment, and a lot of them would vote for it if it came to vote, but no, no, no, gosh, we might poke the bear. If the president gets upset with us, then we might not be in the majority. And so, let's don't do anything that might upset the president.

Shankar Vedantam: Many economists study how people's choices reflect their inner preferences. If I like one product, rather than another, I buy the product I like. My behavior reflects my preferences. Over the past several decades, Duke University economist and political scientist Timur Kuran has studied how our outward behavior sometimes does not reflect our inner preferences. The rupture between our inner thoughts and outward actions has profound consequences in our personal and professional lives and in our politics.

Timur Kuran, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Timur Kuran: Thank you for inviting me.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if we can start with a very simple example of this phenomenon that you've studied for so many years, Timur. We all go over to friends' and neighbors' homes for a dinner party or for a birthday party. What happens in the course of these conversations that reveal this idea you're talking about where our inner thoughts don't always manifest in our outward actions and behavior?

Timur Kuran: Well, sometimes when we go over to friends, we have to jointly decide what we're going to do together. And sometimes it so happens that the group perceives that everyone wants to watch a movie when actually no one does or few do. So people, to appear co-operative, say that they would like to watch a movie and everybody ends up leaving the event dissatisfied or less satisfied than they could have been. They've watched a movie when none of them really wanted to spend the evening that way.

Shankar Vedantam: And I feel I have been to dinner parties where I have not necessarily had the greatest time of my life, but when you leave, you don't tell your host, "I really had a boring evening," you say nice things. In some ways your outward behavior does not necessarily reflect how you feel on the inside.

Timur Kuran: And in the process you miscommunicate what you generally enjoy. So you may be giving your host and other guests perhaps who are leaving at the same time that you're the type of person who loves to watch movies, and maybe the same episode will occur again at the next gathering at somebody else's home, everyone's expectation will be that this is a group that loves to watch movies, so the inefficiency will perpetuate itself, simply because all the guests, just like you, have said to the host that they had a good time. So, the problem doesn't correct itself.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, I think you were at USC, I believe. And you have a story about how the same behavior manifests itself in our professional life. If I recall correctly, the economics department was looking to diversify the staff and bring on more women onto the faculty. Tell me what happened in private conversations and in public conversations around that issue.

Timur Kuran: The department was under pressure to hire more women. There was a great willingness on the part of most members of the department to do this, but there was a sense that if we limited ourselves to looking at women or had decided in advance to hire a female candidate, that we might be making a mistake and that we would be sacrificing quality. This was not voiced however, these concerns were not voiced in the department meeting, they were voiced in private conversations. And when we actually started deciding, and in the presence of everyone else, nobody voiced the objections that were quite commonly being voiced privately.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at one third example before we tie all of these together. You grew up in Turkey and your family was a decidedly secular family and you believed in the secular project of Turkey, but there was something happening in the country at the time that you were growing up when you were a child that you didn't quite realize, you didn't realize that there were people who actually had deep disagreements with the way you and your family looked at the world and looked at the future of Turkey, but they were not voicing those disagreements, but those disagreements were actually just under the surface. Can you describe to me what happened?

Timur Kuran: Those disagreements you're referring to were actually quite widespread, but they were not being voiced among secular intellectuals and secular leaders at the time when I was growing up in Turkey in the 1960s and the 1970s, a form of assertive secularism, which was not simply the separation of church and state or in this case, mosque and state, but the control of religion by the state and the repression of religion. You could not be hired by a state agency if you were a woman and wearing a headscarf, this was generating enormous resentments and there were people who could see that these resentments were building up and that they would explode and that they could backfire. Yet they could not voice these because opposing this measure would be perceived as being against Turkey's modernization process, being anti-Western.

Shankar Vedantam: So we looked at these three different domains, the interpersonal domain, the professional domain, and the political domain. And you've in some ways, connected these different things together into a common phenomenon that you call preference falsification. What is preference falsification, Timur?

Timur Kuran: Preference falsification is the act of misrepresenting one's wants because of perceived social pressures. And it aimed specifically to manipulate the perceptions of others about one's motivations or dispositions. Preference falsification is a form of lying, but one aimed at disguising your true preference and also the information that underlies that preference.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, some people might say, "It sounds like self-censorship," but you argue it's not quite the same as self-censorship.

Timur Kuran: It's broader because preference falsification can take the form of actively pretending that you have a preference that is quite different from the preference who privately have. You may express your private preference to your spouse, to a close friend, and in public project a very different preference. That's preference falsification. It's not simply going quiet, it's not simply deciding not to enter the conversation. It can involve entering the conversation on the opposite side of where you would like to belong.

Shankar Vedantam: Timur has studied societies with widespread preference falsification. Now, the phenomenon can be hard to spot because people don't go around waving a flag saying that they are falsifying their preferences. The point after all is to misrepresent how you really feel. But one way to spot it is when one regime comes to an end and a new one suddenly springs up in its place. That's what happened in East Germany in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down.

News clip: Thousands of East Germans came across the border today, perhaps more than a hundred thousand, so many that border police lost count.

Shankar Vedantam: So, Timur, you've done some work looking at the Soviet Union and the satellite states of the Soviet Union before and after, in some ways, the demise of the Berlin Wall. In East Germany, what did we see before the wall came down? What did we see after the wall came down?

Timur Kuran: Before the wall came down, East Germans were almost unanimously supporting the prevailing regime. There were very, very few dissidents. After the wall came down, very few people would actually admit to having been sincere supporters of the regime that fell. It became hazardous to admit that one sincerely believed in the regime.

Shankar Vedantam: You tell the interesting story of a New York Times correspondent who went to Eastern Europe, I believe the story may have to do with Czechoslovakia, not East Germany. Tell me that story and what the correspondent found before and after, in some ways, the demise of communism.

Timur Kuran: After several East European satellites of the Soviet Union fell in quick succession, the New York Times was full of stories about people who could finally speak the truth after years of falsifying their preferences and falsifying their knowledge. They finally felt free to criticize the regime, and every day that paper was full of stories about people who finally felt liberated. Well, it occurred to the New York Times after several weeks that they hadn't really covered the former establishment, the Communists. So they sent one of their reporters to Czechoslovakia to see how the Communists were fairing and what they thought about the changes that were taking place. And in his first article he sent from Prague said, "Well, I went looking for Communists and I couldn't find a Communist anywhere." And people who had made a career by rising in the Communist Party, running Communist organizations, they were now all saying that they were not really Communists at any point, that they were simply playing along in order to advance, in order to feed their children, in order to have a roof over their heads.

Shankar Vedantam: And you see the same thing, of course, in other countries, which are not necessarily divided on the lines of communism versus capitalism. You know, after Saddam Hussein fell in Iraq, it was hard to find people who were fans of Saddam Hussein, when a few weeks earlier, it was very hard to find critics of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And probably the same thing in China, before and after the Revolution. You see the same patterns in other countries too.

Timur Kuran: Oh, absolutely. In China, the people who had supported the Cultural Revolution wholeheartedly denied that they did that after the regime fell. In Iraq, people serving Saddam were doing so for the same reason that many Czechs and many East Germans and many Poles served their Communist regimes without believing in the regime. There was preference falsification in Iraq too. Of course, it's difficult after a regime change occurs to separate the sincere believers from the preference falsifiers.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how leaders create preference falsification among their followers and how dictators can get millions to fall in line. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Timur Kuran is the author of "Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification." He points out there were many political dissidents in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. Most preferred to remain in the shadows. After the wall came down and the communist regime crumbled, there were many East Germans who still felt loyalty toward the old regime, but now with the tide turned, it was the tone of these communist sympathizers to remain silent, to hide their true beliefs.

Shankar Vedantam: Timur, I want to talk about how authoritarian regimes create the conditions for preference falsification. And I want to jump forward from the twentieth century to the twenty-first century. In 2013, the world woke up one day to news from North Korea.

News clip: This morning, North Korea is reeling. Its Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, completed a stunning power play Thursday against his uncle. North Korea's news agency announced the regime's number two man was executed for trying to overthrow the government, as Seth Doane reports, this high profile purge is unprecedented.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk a moment both about what happened in North Korea, if you remember that incident, Timur, but also about the larger idea about the strategic use of violence in order to enforce preference falsification?

Timur Kuran: I do remember that episode. One of its effects was to make North Korea's dictator signal that absolutely anyone could be punished and punished severely for disloyalty. If Kim can execute a relative and do so without any due process, they could do this to anyone. Authoritarian regimes like that of North Korea limit dissent, or eliminate dissent entirely also by blocking the emergence of a civic society. Individuals are not allowed to form groups that have any autonomy, the state controls everything.

A second measure that these regimes used is to give people the sense that they are always being watched. There are cameras everywhere, there are informants everywhere, and people are encouraged to send information to the regime about signs of dissent to give the sense that no one is immune. No matter how small your community, no matter how useful you are to the regime, no matter how close you are to the dictator himself, you are not immune if you are disloyal or you signal that you might be disloyal, that you're sympathetic to dissenters, you will be punished.

Shankar Vedantam: You know, I'm remembering a video from that incident that was probably circulated by state media. And if I recall correctly, it showed Kim's uncle... You know, this was a major party gathering with hundreds and hundreds of senior, senior people in North Korea gathered, and Kim's uncle was basically grabbed from this big meeting in full public view of all these other people, taken outside the meeting, and was shortly thereafter given "a trial" and then shot. And you could argue, if Kim wanted to get rid of his uncle, he could have put his uncle on trial or had his uncle arrested at his home and then had a trial in secret and done all of this in hiding, but in some ways, the very visibility of what happened, that you could not just take North Korea's number two man, and have him executed, but you could take him from this meeting of all the dignitaries of North Korea, really sent a signal in some ways that no one was safe. And I want you to talk for a moment about the theatricality of the violence that is often necessary to enforce this kind of preference falsification.

Timur Kuran: The choreography here includes not just the audacity of dragging Kim's uncle out of this gathering, but the fact that nobody in the audience objected. Everybody, and these were powerful people who were part of the North Korean regime, they were military leaders, they were industrial leaders, they were major political leaders, nobody lifted a finger to defend the uncle. This is part of the theatrics to demonstrate to the entire nation that if you are disloyal, if you do anything that threatens the regime, nobody will come to your help because everybody is living in fear. This is part of the system of control.

Saddam did something very similar, except it was even more dramatic. In one of the party congresses, he identified somebody in the audience, had them dragged out, and shot in the hallway, and the entire party Congress heard the shot and nobody made a move. And that was Saddam's way of communicating the same message. And of course, this was very widely publicized for the same reason that Kim widely publicized his execution.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we imagine that in totalitarian states, the powers that be hold on to power through ruthless acts of violence like we've just been talking about. And of course, this is true, but you say, this does not explain how widely preference falsification is practiced. That in some ways, if you looked at the prison population, for example, of the old Soviet Union, you don't necessarily see a huge number of people in prison. In other words, you don't need many, many examples of this kind of violence to actually have preference falsification multiply itself across an entire society.

Timur Kuran: No, you don't. Of course, there were periods in the Soviet Union of massive violence. Under Stalin, there were millions of people who were either executed or sent to the Gulag Archipelago and Siberia, this does happen, but when we look at Eastern Europe as a whole and if we look at Soviet history, we see periods when there was actually very little violence. The violence committed earlier was enough to keep people in line. You just needed to punish people occasionally. And there was the case of a high level person in the East German Secret Service, who was found guilty of something, and he was demoted to being the doorman. And this was a visible reminder to everyone every day, as they entered the big building of the German Secret Service of what could happen, how you could lose all your comforts and all your privileges, if you fell out of line.

But there were parts of Eastern Europe, like Czechoslovakia, where there was actually very little violence. The prisons did not have an especially large number of political prisoners. What kept the system going is that people were expected to turn on dissidents and to avoid befriending them, even if they agreed with them. So when Václav Havel, the famous writer and later the president of Czechoslovakia, and then later president of the Czech Republic, when he and a few friends of his signed the declaration called Carter 77, which asked the Czech Republic essentially to respect certain human rights, the government launched a campaign of vilification and expected citizens to participate in it. Millions of people, including school children wrote letters to newspapers condemning these traitors, these monsters, and the people who signed the declaration lost many of their friends.

There were people who when they saw them walking down the street, they moved to the other side so as not to have to say hello to them. So what sustained these East European regimes was not just the punishments that were delivered by the regime, it was not just the oppression of the regime, but it was actually people helping to vilify the enemies of the regime or the perceived enemies of the regime.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, people now are not just necessarily falling in line as a result of the fear they feel from the top, in some ways they're becoming enforcers themselves, and in some ways, that's how the system perpetuates?

Timur Kuran: The system perpetuates itself by turning the victims into victimizers. And everyone becomes complicit in this system of oppression, which also creates a great deal of guilt in people. One of the reasons why Václav Havel's friends would move to the other side of the road when they saw him coming, is that it gave them pain to have to ignore Václav, not say hello to him, or as the case might be, to have to say something insulting to him, when they actually deep down they admired what he was doing and they felt ashamed that they were not part of this group of dissidents themselves. So each act of conformism, each act of preference falsification that is undertaken to buy some comfort, becomes a burden on everyone else. It makes everyone else feel the need to issue similar signals.

Shankar Vedantam: So one of the profound implications of this theory is that it helps explain something that seems mysterious otherwise, which is when you look at different societies, the speed at which revolutionary change can sometimes unfold is often staggering. So even, we talked about East Germany earlier, more than three quarters of East Germans had not foreseen that the fall of Communism was coming, and most people believed the regime was stable. Can you talk about this idea of how preference falsification in some ways conceals vulnerabilities in societies and allows in some ways for revolutionary change to happen? This was true in your own native land of Turkey, it's true in the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, it's true in China, many other places, the speed of change can be explained in some ways by the extent of preference falsification.

Timur Kuran: Yes. In these repressive regimes, there are millions of people who are doing what is expected of them to signal that they are supporters of the regime when they actually are dissatisfied, but they don't reveal themselves. While they're becoming increasingly disillusioned, they are still going along, they're still informing on others, but if a few people get to the point where they do say, "Enough is enough," you get to the point where you're ready to jump in, but we don't know until a movement gets going. We don't see that actually the potential is there. So even the CIA did not see the East European revolutions coming. The KGB did not see this. The dissidents themselves did not see it. As the signs of the approaching revolution started to multiply, Václav Havel was asked whether a revolution was coming and he said, "Let's stop dreaming." He didn't see it coming.

Shankar Vedantam: And this is true in some ways of your own family's experience in Turkey, Timur. I mean, your family in some ways, as we discussed earlier, were decidedly secular, they believed in the idea of a secular Turkey, they believed that this would be the regime going forward. Your family failed to see what was coming down the pike.

Timur Kuran: This is correct. And when I was growing up in Turkey, I failed to see what was coming and I failed to see the resentments that were building up. I bought into the notion that there were some obscurantists or very conservative Muslims who were backward thinking, but with modernization, their numbers would diminish and education would solve the problem. There was nothing to worry about. I did not see at the time the pain that this was generating and the many resentments that it was generating, that would cause huge problems for Turkey down the road.

Shankar Vedantam: You're a scholar of Islamic studies besides the other work you've done. And one of the interesting things you've looked at recently is the rise in some ways of atheism in many parts of the Muslim world. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because again, that's the flip side of what you've just described happened in Turkey. What does the data show in terms of what's happening underneath the surface in many Muslim majority countries?

Timur Kuran: The percentage of atheists and theists, people who classify themselves as believing in God, but not in Islam, is rising. And the figures are startlingly high. Even at religious schools, they are in double digits.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow!

Timur Kuran: In Iran, religiosity has fallen dramatically. The evidence from Saudi Arabia shows a rise in the percentage of atheists and people who have secretly converted out of Islam. None of this of course gets captured in public statistics and you won't see it in outwards behaviors, but actually what happened in Turkey is now happening in reverse. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was genuinely religious people who were hiding their religiosity and pretending to be secular. Now, there are many people who are actually secular, who are pretending to be religious, or who no longer believe in God or who no longer believe in Islam, but are pretending publicly to do so. Fear has changed sides, and the form of religious preference falsification has changed sides. It's just the same phenomenon, but the opposite side is benefiting.

Shankar Vedantam: We've looked at preference falsification in North Korea, the Soviet Union in under repressive regimes. It's clear that totalitarian states create ideal conditions for the formation of preference falsification. Many of us might imagine that countries with a free press, with protections for free speech, democracies, these would not be nations where preference falsification flourishes, but is that true? When we come back, we'll take a closer look at preference falsification in the United States.

When Timur Kuran first began proposing his ideas about preference falsification some two decades ago, many of his colleagues said, "Okay, that kind of stuff happens in repressive totalitarian regimes. It can't happen in democracies like the United States, where the freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution." Timur says this was a dangerous misunderstanding. You don't need re-education camps in Siberia to frighten people into falling in line. Recent studies show a majority of Americans are afraid to share their political views, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. Of course, it varies depending on the context, depending on whether the country is red or blue, but a substantial share of Americans are afraid that if they express their political views truthfully, that they will get demoted, they might get fired. And there are substantial numbers of Americans who believe that people who hold the wrong political views should be fired, should not be given opportunities. And this is just a very concrete cost of today of expressing political views.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at preference falsification on both the right and the left, and maybe start with the Republican Party. I want to go back to 2016, and candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. He was a very unusual candidate. He said many things that were unconventional for a politician. He played on some of the questions we've been talking about because he articulated views that many people may have held, but were uncomfortable expressing themselves, and so he became their vehicle for the views.

But also in interpersonal conversations and debates, Trump regularly insulted many of his opponents. Sometimes he went so far as to insult, not just his opponents, but the families of his opponents. I remember one time he mocked the appearance of Heidi Cruz, the wife of Senator Ted Cruz from Texas.

Speaker 6:

Trump has clearly attacked Cruz's wife by putting up that side-by-side of the two women, with Cruz's wife looking very awkward, not a great moment for her, and Melania Trump looking like a model. I mean, basically he was saying, "My wife's prettier than yours is." Can you talk a bit about the ways in which these dramatic expressions of insult may have in some ways shaped how Republicans started to respond to Donald Trump? You started to recognize that if you crossed him in a debate, you were not just going to get a policy response, you were going to get a smack down. You were going to get insulted, maybe even your family members would get insulted.

Timur Kuran: Yes. This is something it's analogous to the theatrics in North Korea and in Baghdad, we talked about. Through those insults and attacks, Trump was sending in 2016, that if you crossed him, no matter who you were, you would get attacked and he would try to destroy your reputation, and that his followers would join in attacking you. And it was very important that he demonstrate that nobody was immune to this. He has attacked leading commentators on Fox News who have been among his supporters, he's tried to destroy their reputations, he's insulted them. The message he sends by doing that is very similar to the message North Korea's dictator sent when he had his uncle executed in plain sight. Everyone went along with what happened, nobody objected. In Trump's case, very few people defend publicly the person who is being attacked, the person who was picked by Trump to be part of his cabinet, and suddenly he's demonized, he's fired. And very few people stand up for him, people continue to support Trump. So, there's a parallel here in the tactics being employed to build and maintain power.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip of Republican Senator Bob Corker chastising his fellow Republicans for being unwilling to cross President Trump, even if that meant sacrificing their core beliefs about free trade policies.

Bob Corker: I would bet that 95% of the people on this side of the aisle support intellectually this amendment, and a lot of them would vote for it if it came to vote, but no, no, no, gosh, we might poke the bear. If the president gets upset with us, then we might not be in the majority. And so, let's don't do anything that might upset the president. So look, I'm a no-

Shankar Vedantam: Pretty remarkable, Timur. In some ways, when I'm hearing that, I'm hearing in some ways the language of preference falsification.

Timur Kuran: Absolutely. And people are afraid in this case, Republican office holders are afraid if they cross Trump he might not support them in their reelection bid, that Trump might support an opponent more to his liking. So there have been many people who privately wished that Trump would go away and disagree with many of the policies that he is pursuing, disagree vehemently with his style, but don't object. Even his opponents in the 2016 election in the primaries like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have fallen in line.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. I mean, one of the things you said earlier stuck with me, which is that in some ways, each time he did one of these things and people did not cross him, it sent a signal and the signal was not just that he could say whatever he wanted, the signal was that no one would actually stand up to him from his own party. And of course, once you do that, you essentially send a signal that going forward you are alone if you basically stand up and cross Donald Trump. And in some ways, that is so similar to what you were telling me earlier in the conversation we were having about Kim Jong-un or what happened in Turkey or what happened in the Soviet Union.

Timur Kuran: And he actually articulated this strategy quite well when he said, "I could shoot somebody on fifth Avenue in New York and nothing would happen to me." This was a signal he was sending to all Republicans not to cross him, that he could do anything to them and the party would stay behind him. His reason for attacking McCain was also an element of this strategy. McCain is a hero of both the right and the left. Why you might ask would Trump, while he's running for president in 2016, go out of his way to criticize McCain as a loser for having become a prisoner in Vietnam? You would think that tens of millions of Republicans would be horrified by that. Well, his strategy there was to show that he could take on even a hero like McCain. Many observers, and I would include myself in the group, did not appreciate at the time. When he attacked McCain I thought, "Well, now he's gone a step too far. He's lost the military vote," but he actually went up in the polls, not down.

Shankar Vedantam: We are having this conversation in late November 2020. It's been about three weeks since the general election. And it's really striking because I think everyone generally senses that most Republicans believe the election is over, that Donald Trump lost and that Joe Biden won, and yet the number of Republicans who've been willing to come forward and actually say this, you can count them on the fingers of one hand, the prominent Republicans who have been willing to come forward and do that. I mean, this is really preference falsification in spades.

Timur Kuran: This is preference falsification in spades. Most Republican elites believe that Trump lost the election. It turns out that 88% of Republicans, in general, believe the election was stolen. Trump may continue whether he actively tries to run in 2024 or not, he may continue leading the party and he may play a very important role in selecting not only the next nominee of the Republican Party, but also nominees in various states. So, many Republican office holders are at the moment just waiting to see what will happen. And while they are waiting, they are continuing to play this game of also supporting his efforts to overturn the result of the election.

Shankar Vedantam: Let's look at an example of preference falsification on the left. In 2020, over the summer especially, the country was captivated by the Black Lives Matter movement. And this was especially true in California. In the 2020 election, one of the things that was on the California ballot proposition for Californians was to vote on affirmative action. And I want to play you a little clip of what happened in that ballot initiative.

Speaker 7:

California voters soundly rejected Prop 16, which would have restored affirmative action and racial preferences.

Speaker 8:

Every single major elected Democrat, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, big labor unions across the state, big organizations, nonprofit organizations, all in favor of it, but the voters said, "No."

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk about this for a moment, Timur, that there was such support for Black Lives Matter in 2020, and you would think that a state that basically was strongly for Black Lives Matter would also support affirmative action, but in some ways it seemed as if the private preferences of Californians was not being revealed in the protests that we saw on the streets.

Timur Kuran: This is not new. Affirmative action, whether it's racial affirmative action or gender-based affirmative action, it has generally been unpopular even in heavily Democratic States. This is what we find when we poll people, giving them anonymity. In public, though, especially in heavily Democratic States, many people pretend that they support it. And the extent of preference falsification is especially high among educated people, among corporate leaders, in academia, in journalism. And so, because they strongly support affirmative action, we get the sense that this is a widely supported policy measure, but in fact, it is not.

Shankar Vedantam: So between the 2016 and 2020 elections, Donald Trump, who was widely seen as a misogynist by those on the left, lost support among men, but held steady with women, between the 2016 presidential election and the 2020 presidential election. Trump obviously was also seen widely by those in the left as a racist, but he lost ground among white voters and gained ground among Blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, many of the differences between 2016 and 2020 are small, but it's revealing that Trump did not lose ground among the very groups who were said to be affected the worst by his presidency. There are lots of theories about why this has happened. Can preference falsification explain some of these outcomes, Timur?

Timur Kuran: Absolutely. And we need to recognize it's possible for a person to dislike Trump as a person, think that he did a horrible job, think that he'd said horrible things perhaps against them, they're Latino and he has said these, characterized all Hispanics as rapists and murderers. And at the same time, like certain positions that he is taking, controversial positions he's taking.

Timur Kuran: I think this probably explains why Trump did not lose ground among African-Americans and why he'd even gained ground among Muslims. It's too early now to know exactly why these groups supported or increased their support for Trump, but I think that we're going to find out that these certain policies that the left dislikes and that Trump has very vocally supported and pursued, probably played a role. They wouldn't admit it publicly, which is why the pollsters missed the rising support within those groups, but probably these are the factors that drove the rise in Trump's support.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the really interesting things that you say about preference falsification is that there are ways to express your discontent with a regime or with a new system, but you have to do it in a way that is subtle. And one of the ways you can do it is through humor. I want to play you a clip of the comedian Chris Rock, talking about work culture at the Academy Awards, where he was hosting.

Chris Rock: The 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no Black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. That you got to figure that it had happened in the 50s, in the 60s, and Black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We had real things to protest. I was too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.

Shankar Vedantam: What's revealing here, Timur, is not just that he's making the joke, but that the audience is laughing, and this might not be an audience that's actually very comfortable with what he's saying. Can you talk a little bit about how humor sometimes is a marker of what's underneath the surface in many societies?

Timur Kuran: Humor is used in repressive societies and in contexts where people feel constrained in what they can say, or to signal that one is aware of certain contradictions without taking ownership of the preferences being expressed or the facts being pointed to. In laughing, they signal that they understand what is being communicated, but don't have to take ownership for it.

Shankar Vedantam: So it's almost like the court jester role in sort of ancient times. I mean, the one person who could speak truth to the king was the court jester, because it was understood that the jester was jesting and everyone can laugh, and you can discuss sort of truths that are beneath the surface without being marched off to be executed.

Timur Kuran: Yes, this is exactly the role that comedians play. And comedy flourishes in repressive societies and it tends to gravitate toward areas where we are uncomfortable speaking openly. To understand the areas where preference falsification is rampant, looking at the comedy shows is a good place to start.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering why the preference falsification is more likely to help people and groups who have strong views or extreme views, rather than moderates. I mean, if you think there should be, for example, zero immigration to the United States, you can call anyone who has even mildly pro-immigrant views, you know, a traitor. On the other hand, if you think that they should be open borders to the United States, you can call anyone who calls for any immigration restrictions, a racist. I feel it's harder to do this if you have moderate views, precisely because moderation suggests a certain amount of flexibility nuance or even compromise. Does preference falsification, you think, tend to drive moderation out of the conversation and reward extreme positions?

Timur Kuran: It does. And it's one of the manifestations of it is the hyperpolarization we see in the United States today. In both parties we are seeing struggles between extremists and moderates, and it's the moderates who are finding it necessary to falsify their preferences, to give up certain nuances in their arguments. And those individuals find it very risky to participate in debates because they get demonized by both sides.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if you can talk a moment about what the consequences of this are. What are the consequences? I mean, we've seen in some ways how preference falsification operates and sort of the effects that it has, but what are the consequences? Should we just simply say, "Well, different groups rise and fall, different things come to the fore at different times?" What are the negative effects of preference falsification? What are the things that it doesn't allow us to do that a freer expression and sharing of ideas might allow us to do?

Timur Kuran: One of the huge costs is that we can't have an informed debate. All sorts of ideas that might prove very useful don't get expressed. And bad ideas don't get scrutinized because people are afraid of criticizing them. And sometimes there're, on some issues, there are two extreme ideas that are surviving in different communities, one on the right, one on the left, neither gets scrutinized, neither gets criticized. People who have reservations, people who have ways of improving the ideas, they don't express themselves. Well, if the potential solutions, potential remedies, don't get expressed, then nobody will build on them.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we've seen how preference falsification has all of these negative effects. I want to spend a moment talking about a couple of potentially positive effects of preference falsification. Can you talk a moment about how in some ways preference falsification might play a role in maintaining norms of decency and a mutual respect, because in some ways we are afraid to cross one another. And this might go all the way back to the initial conversation we were having. You know, if everyone expressed everything they were feeling in their hearts, much social interaction would come to a grinding halt because if we actually told everyone what we thought of them, we would likely have very few friends left.

Timur Kuran: That's true, and that you've pointed to one of the favorable consequences of preference falsification. We have friends who have bad taste in what they wear, we have friends who get terrible haircuts. If we expressed our preference, this would make it quite uncomfortable for them. And if everyone reminded us of all the things they didn't like about us all the time, it would be pretty uncomfortable for us. Preference falsification is also an instrument of civility.

Shankar Vedantam: Isn't it also the case that if you look at our major political parties, they're really coalitions of different and often competing interests. So, on the right, you have country club, free market Republicans, who have to get along with populists and evangelicals. On the left, you might have supporters of the Me Too movement who want to punish sexual predators, who have to sit together and work together, who are with people who argue there's too much incarceration and too much punishment in the country.

Can you talk a moment about how in some ways preference falsification allows these coalitions to stick together? And I think it's partly the same phenomenon you were describing a second earlier, it comes about because largely people are willing to hold their tongues or bite their tongues, instead of saying everything that's on their minds.

Timur Kuran: Yes, absolutely. And I would add that they are unstable coalitions. And one of the things that has held the Democratic Party together in the 2016, 2020 period, is a common hatred of Trump and a common desire to get rid of him because he's undermining various projects that they hold dear. Once Trump is gone and they are governing, they will have to make choices. And what we're going to see in the 2020 to 2024 period under Joe Biden, is we're going to see whether he is able to hold this coalition together by making the various constituencies bite their tongue on various issues, to keep a facade of unity. In 2016 to 2020, Trump was the person who did that, who called the shots and kept the coalition together, and various groups like the country club Republicans and evangelicals in the Republican coalition, went along with this. What we're about to see is whether in the absence of a ruthless president, who's willing to destroy the reputation of literally anyone who crosses him to keep his coalition together, to keep his base together, whether in the absence of such a president, one who is more used to compromising and who is more civil, will be able to keep the Democratic coalition together.

Shankar Vedantam: Timur Kuran is an economist and political scientist at Duke University. He's the author of Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. Timur, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Timur Kuran: Thank you very much for the discussion, Shankar. It was an honor.

Shankar Vedantam:

Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero for this episode is our former producer, Rhaina Cohen. Rhaina first introduced me to Timur Kuran's work while we were working on another episode. I've been fascinated by the theory of preference falsification ever since. Rhaina has also shaped many other Hidden Brain episodes. As a colleague, she was always thoughtful and kind. We miss her, and are so grateful for all her contributions to our show.

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