Bryan Caplan  

Preference Falsification: A Case Study

A Few Quick Hits... Is Bryan Caplan Hypocritical?...
If you haven't read Timur Kuran's Private Truths, Public Lies, you should.  It's a classic of "obvious once you think about it" social science.  In the face of social pressure - or brute force - people pretend to believe and want things that they don't believe or want.  Kuran calls this "preference falsification," and applies it to many interesting cases: the collapse of Communism, Muslim veiling, and much more.  After my recent Gilded Age adventures (here, here, here, and here, with a side trip to Pennsylvania Dutch country), I feel like I've got a better first-hand understanding of what Kuran's talking about. 

Background: I spent about a week wondering if my praise of David Boaz's critique of libertarian nostalgia needed more qualification.  I discussed the issue with several colleagues.  I did some more background reading on coverture and related topics.  Then I blogged my conclusions.

I expected many people to strongly disagree with me.  I even expected some angry reactions.  I was struck, though, by the array of social pressure I evoked: not just insults (e.g. "stupidest man alive"), but expressions of disappointment (e.g. "I thought you were better than this") and attempts to shame me (e.g. "you're embarrassing GMU econ").  The charitable interpretation is that critics are trying to give me an incentive to be a higher-quality thinker, but isn't preference falsification a more likely response to such treatment?  Indeed, as Kuran would predict, a number of bloggers and blog readers privately expressed their agreement with me.  As long as the social pressure remains, however, they won't be sharing their reasons with you.

Contrary to many people's model of me, I don't actually enjoy shocking people.  One-on-one, in fact, I follow an "opt-in" rule of controversial conversation.  But in allegedly truth-seeking forums - blogs, books, debates, seminars - I try not to think about whether my positions will offend before I express them.  Kuran's model fits a lot of what happens in the world, but I refuse to let it fit me.

P.S. What's the best way to discourage others from encouraging preference falsification?  At the risk of giving ammo to my colleagues who mischievously call me a "very Christian thinker," I think the wisest course is to turn the other cheek.  I will not call anyone else names, express my disappointment in them, or try to shame them.  It's no panacea, but it beats the alternatives.

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The author at Eli Dourado in a related article titled The Myth of the Rational Blogosphere writes:
    Bryan Caplan has taken a lot of heat for his argument that on net, American women were freer in 1880 than they are today. While some of the pushback has been substantive, the majority has been disgustingly personal. Bryan, who is a pacifistic sort, has... [Tracked on April 17, 2010 2:01 PM]
The author at Fahreunblog in a related article titled Sssshhhhhhhhh: cose che non si possono dire writes:
    Problema: le donne dell' Ottocento vivevano in un mondo più libero di quello d' oggi? Prima di rispondere è bene tenere a mente che "ricchezza" e "libertà" sono concetti da non mischiare indebitamente. E' d' uopo, poi, appuntarsi anche questo: 1. pr [Tracked on April 22, 2010 3:47 AM]
COMMENTS (28 to date)
Doc Merlin writes:

Anyway, social pressure doesn't stop people from believing their ideas, it just slows their spread, so that within a generation no one has them anymore.

How to fight preference falsification? Mock derisively the people who apply the social pressure. A good example of this being done successfully is anti-feminist's mockery of radical feminists and feminist separatists, and meat eater's mockery of evangelical vegans/vegetarians.

Contemplationist writes:

Forget Delong and Krugman. They should be ostracized , just like they prefer everyone who doesn't adhere to their rigid band of acceptable opinion be cast aside from civilization.

Prakhar Goel writes:

"How to fight preference falsification? Mock derisively the people who apply the social pressure."

This has limited utility as the people who mock may be mistaken in their understanding of "social pressure." This also has the potential to lead to a flame-war.

Much better seems to me to be comment moderation. Strictly refuse any ad hominem comments.

Doc Merlin writes:

@Prakhar Goel

I meant in general; your idea is better for a blog, yes.

Philo writes:

"Contrary to many people's model of me, I don't actually enjoy shocking people." The content and the tone of your post confirm this. It's hard to imagine Robin Hanson writing anything so "Christian."

SydB writes:

Wait. Isn't this the "I'm so awesome because everyone opposes my idea but I stand up to them anyway" argument?

The fact that people oppose you, or even call you names, doesn't make you right or wrong. And the fact that people like you, Kling, and Mankiw spend not a little time writing about how people mistreat you--quite frequently in fact--makes me believe that in some absurd and ironic fashion, you guys actually do worry a lot about what people think about you.

Otherwise, wouldn't you just move on to the next topic. Yet you, Kling, and Mankiw harp quite frequently about ad hominem, social pressure, and the likes.

What's up with that? Pressure getting to you?

Ray Gardner writes:

That "Christian" thinking is merely self-control. Being above the fray always conveys a sense of control, authority, and an air of being correct. Even when the opposition is coming at you with daggers, they can't quite shake the nagging feeling that you are at least partially right.

Those that curse and carry-on, insult and degrade think they're scoring points or something, but in reality they come off as petty, emotional, and generally not in full control of their faculties.

In the Marines we called it "bearing." Not being above the fray was professional suicide if you had any ambitions of being a leader.

Gwen writes:

I think many women strongly believe that the state ought to protect them from rape. Many also believe that they ought to have some basic legal rights to economic self-determination. Lots of men agree. They believe this against the current of history and tradition; most societies in most places at most times have not treated men and women as entitled to equal rights of self-determination. That development is still less than a century old. For that reason, any argument, however hypothetical, that we don't really need these rights can sound a little like a personal attack on the particular rights of the particular woman who is reading that argument. I think that's an unfortunate result, because it makes for a poor discussion built on accusations and defensiveness, but it's an unsurprising one. Reasoned argument is all that those rights are built on - they're not the immutable practice of the human race - so you can expect some ferocity in the defence of the arguments when they come under attack.

Given that, I don't think it's true that that the only reason for people expressing emotion in your direction is to scare you into changing your mind. People become angry when (for example) they hear the sentence "marital rape is only a symbolic issue". In some instances, this might be because they're rape victims themselves. In others, it's because they have been through a legal education that involves reading lots of cases in which marital rape occurred and they don't appreciate the trivialisation (that one's me). Sometimes it's just ordinary empathy at work.

In any case, it's somewhat self-involved to assume that the objective is to get you to change your mind. I've never met you. I've no particular interest in what you, personally, think of women's rights. I have a very strong interest, however, in debunking any argument that women don't need these rights because I think arguments of that type - which I've heard quite frequently before, though rarely in the West - are dangerous and have unpleasant consequences. Those unpleasant consequences make me angry which sometimes makes it difficult for me to respond politely to this class of argument. But that's because of my own life experiences, the life experiences of other women that I know, and my political beliefs and the anger is with the argument. It's not about you.

kebko writes:

I agree with SydB that that is a potential problem, but I think Bryan deserves kudos here. One of the sad things about this is how non-libertarian sites like Crooked Timber have used this as fodder for confirmation bias. Hundreds of comments were posted there along the lines of "See, look how stupid those libertarians are." The post received more attention as a confirmation mechanism than it did as an original discussion.
Bryan put the idea out there knowing it would be kicked around a bit. And it was. The sorry folks using it as their own set of intellectual blinders will mostly not bother to confront actual, fleshed out libertarian ideas.
I don't agree with Bryan's original post, but he comes off much better than 90% of the people reacting to it.
Bryan frequently finds differing viewpoints that he considers strong, which he can comment on with respect. If only he could consider unconventional ideas without being kicked in the gut for it. It's not like he's arguing that women should be dragged back to the 19th century.

Eric H writes:

"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher regard those who think alike than those who think differently."

Thank you for failing to contribute to the continuing corruption.

mbk writes:

This view (Kuran's) ties in nicely with the phenomenon of choice blindness.

Choice blindness is a bit more extreme than public deception with private dissent from the mainstream, in that it is actual self deception.

It has to be said that East Asian societies are notorious for large tolerance within individuals for different "faces". This applies not just to different public vs private opinions, but to display of a completely different persona depending on environment (context oriented personality). e.g., The downsides of an overly context-sensitive self.

So, depending on the society you're in, the issue may be wider than just a contradiction between public and private displays of affiliation.

[Broken link deleted.--Econlib Ed.]

Tom West writes:

I've been watching this debate and trying to pull out lessons for my son who is (also?) Asperger's.

I think the fundamental problem here is Bryan is able to disentangle a very narrow fact from a much wider truth that points the opposite way. Unfortunately for Bryan, that is not how human beings (in general) operate.

To take an analogy, if I choose to find some narrow way in which slavery had some beneficial effect among its huge host of massively negative effects, I will be seen as justifying slavery. More to the point, my words will be used by others to justify slavery, regardless of my intentions.

That human beings are 'defective' enough that they cannot distinguish between a narrow fact and wholesale support isn't a problem with human beings, it's a problem with the speaker. Your responsibility is not to speak truth, it's to understand how your words will be taken.

Sometimes, giving succor to those you despise is a price one is willing to pay. Often time, it is not.

In this case, by using a narrow definition of freedom that allows takes into account physical, but not social coercion, Bryan might possibly be correct in a factual sense, but it doesn't matter. This blog entry is for human beings, and human beings will interpret what he says in an entirely different fashion.

A fashion that in this case, makes it perfectly clear to the vast majority of readers that he supports as long as there's little government interference, a massively repressive society that prevents women from almost any sort of freedom absolutely acceptable.

The human truth that I have been teaching my son over these many years (and have been trying to semi-successfully remember myself) is that truth is not what I say, it's what is actually communicated.

People may have privately supported Bryan because they could see a factual truth in his words. But they could not publicly support because, unlike Bryan, they realized instinctively or explicitly that in a public medium that that factual truth (such as it is) simply *cannot* be communicated to a general audience of human beings.

SydB writes:

kebko: I think Caplan would benefit from thinking through and communicating his beliefs on controversial topics a little more carefully. For example, his original argument--as I pointed out--was incoherent. It really wasn't an argument. And I think, in a way, Caplan enjoys the controversy. Otherwise, on topics such as gender issues or race and IQ, he'd communicate them more clearly. But I get the feeling he doesn't want to. He wasn't clear on what freedom he's talking about, and if he clarified it and limited it, his opinion wouldn't sound as controversial and would gather less attention. But it would be more accurate. And given that he claims an interest in truth, I think a more cautious approach on controversial arguments might make sense.

The real question on this topic is: how do federal and local laws--and their interpretations--different with respect to women in 1880 and now.

Or is it womyn?

Justin Martyr writes:

At the risk of giving ammo to my colleagues who mischievously call me a "very Christian thinker," I think the wisest course is to turn the other cheek. I will not call anyone else names, express my disappointment in them, or try to shame them. It's no panacea, but it beats the alternatives.

There are a lot of progressive bloggers and there are a lot of nice bloggers, but as far as I know, there is no nice, progressive blogger. That tells me that progressives systematically rely on shame, scorn, and ostracism rather than evidence.

As someone who is literally a "very Christian thinking" I do have to point out that every advance in woman's rights ranging from ending infanticide of girl babies, to consensual marriage, to education of women, to the suffrage movement, came out of Christianity. For example, women were taught to read so that they could read and study the Bible. This had the unintended but happy consequence of providing a much more literate and educated society since literature mothers gave their children a massive head start on their own education.

Kitaro Deuter writes:

I am tempted to comment further on the Asperger’s point, but that is a very serious matter, and deserves a great deal of thoughtfulness and compassion. This business about preference falsification, while intrinsically interesting, is utterly beside the point. You made a silly and arrogant set of arguments about an obviously sensitive topic that you have not done even superficial research on or previously given serious thought, and people who do care about these things and do not already think exactly like you do have reacted negatively. What a surprise!

Philo writes:


"He wasn't clear on what freedom he's talking about . . . ." I thought it was quite clear that he was talking about "negative liberty"--non-interference in one's activities by others' use of force or the threat of force.

"The real question on this topic is: how do federal and local laws--and their interpretations--different with respect to women in 1880 and now." Bryan's question was slightly narrower, though still "real": Are the laws of 1880 *more* or *less* restrictive of women's freedom (in Bryan's sense) than the laws of 2010?

Tom West writes:

Asperger’s ... and deserves a great deal of thoughtfulness and compassion

I'm not certain about compassion.

Being able to read people and anticipate a person's reactions is a learn-able skill, just like an animal trainer uses skill to anticipate how his charges will react. I'd say that spending the time to learn and hone the skill is likely to make one *more* socially adept than those who simply relying on instinct, which, while adequate for most social situations, tends to miss all sorts of tell-tale clues and be heavily influenced by what the perceiver *wants* to be true.

It is, however, a lot more work.

Still, compassion makes it sound like an insurmountable handicap.

SydB writes:

Philo: Yes, my statement is less restrictive but unless one looks at the actual written laws and how they are implemented one is not considering the actual imposition of those laws on individuals. How they are interpreted means if they are enforced and how. And true, interpretation of laws at some point merges into culture, which is outside the scope of the discussion.

As far as "freedom," I knew what Caplan was talking about, but it's not clear to me others did. I went back through the original post. He uses the term "libertarian freedom" and "freer" and "freedom" pretty loosely here and there. It would never be clear what he's talking about to the average reader.

If Caplan wants to produce a blog post in which people wildly misinterpret and then spin off in assorted directions--he succeeded. If he had been more constrained, it would have been less noteworthy.

But it's a blog post, so whatever. Except Caplan says blogs aren't whatever, they're truth. Whatever.

Brian N. writes:

So DeLong called you stupid...that's really nice. No, I mean it. If DeLong calls you stupid you should consider it a point of pride. His opinion is debased coinage.

Dain writes:

Did anyone else notice that Tom West's first comment was a powerful argument against free speech?

Doc Merlin writes:

Its actually the most common argument used against free speech. Basically: "memes are contagious you shouldn't spread your bad memes."
It has two huge flaws:

(1) it discounts the role and importance of free will (even if it is illusory, we must act as if it is real for society to function properly, because of incentives).

(2) What is the process to decide what is a good meme and a bad meme? This results in a particularly pernicious public choice problem.

Ray Gardner writes:

Truth is truth.

If it's communicated badly then it's a matter of the speaker not possessing an appropriate amount of discretion. (Getting into some Jewish thinking here via Proverbs, discretion and insight are ingredients of wisdom.)

If the truth is received incorrectly regardless of how it's communicated then the listener is simply not wise enough to see past their own biases.

But truth cannot be manipulated into some subjective statement that restricts truth to how it is presented or received.

More to the point:

If I choose to say something on the matter in public, and another thing in private, then I'm simply dishonest, and intellectually weak. If I choose to just avoid the whole mess because supporting Bryan would cost me more than it's worth, then that is a different issue.

Andy Hallman writes:


Did anyone else notice that Tom West's first comment was a powerful argument against free speech?

I don't think Tom is advocating the government should silence Bryan, but rather that Bryan should be more cautious about how he argues.

Tom West writes:

Basically: "memes are contagious you shouldn't spread your bad memes."

My point was not you shouldn't spread bad memes. Nor was it an argument about free speech.

It was simply making the point that communication has two end points, and you should be aware of the limitations of the average human being as listener, or, at the very least, if you choose to ignore those limitations, be prepared and accept the consequences of the inevitable response.

I will say the thing I found slightly surprising was the number of people that found it literally unbelievable that Bryan had not intended by his statements to make a full-scale defense of mid-1880's social practices.

I understood how his argument would come across, but the *absolute* certainty in so many readers that this was how he *meant* to come across was startling, and a clear indication as to how basic a part of human nature this behavior is.

jb writes:

For the record, I think Bryan's attempt to cleanly separate social from governmental coercion was foolish on a number of levels. But I'm enough of an introvert that his foolishness is not as interesting as the heart of the argument itself, removed from its semantic and social ribcage.

So, examining the heart of the issue - I find his argument still unpersuasive - women of today can vote, and they can be in the military, both of which they couldn't do before, and I personally weight those higher than the various regulatory restrictions that the government has placed upon us in the intervening century.

But it was an interesting idea nonetheless, and the baseline view is that those who attacked him personally indicated that they simply aren't as smart as he is, or they could have argued the merits instead of arguing ad hominem.

BUT! It's also a fact that people who espouse "kooky" ideas lose status, and, more importantly, people who argue and engage with people who espouse "kooky" ideas also lose status!

In which case, everyone is being quite intelligent by dismissing him and hurling insults at him - at the end of the day, Bryan has tethered himself to a very large and heavy status-lowering anchor, and will drag everyone who engages thoughtfully down with him.

I, having no measurable status in this area, have nothing to lose by stating my mind :)

Tracy W writes:

Bryan, you were arguing that laws suppressing supplying contraceptives or even information about contraceptions didn't matter, as not many women wanted to use contraceptives. When did libertarians start arguing that suppressing freedom of speech was okay?

Your failure to mention any biases on your part makes me suspicious about any claims by you of biases on the part of those who disagree with you. I don't think you're thinking clearly about this.

Will Wilkinson writes:

Bryan, You write:

"The charitable interpretation is that critics are trying to give me an incentive to be a higher-quality thinker, but isn't preference falsification a more likely response to such treatment?"

I don't understand this. Are you saying that your critics are trying to shame you you into falsifying your preferences? Or are you saying that your critics should be have been able to predict that their heated criticism would simply lead you to falsify your preferences rather than think harder?

It sounds like you're saying the latter, which is weird, since you're telling us straight up in this post that you're not inclined to falsify your preferences or beliefs, and you've given every indication in the past that you call it as you see it. So, no, your critics should not have predicted that Bryan Caplan would pretend to retract what he said to keep up appearances, since there was abundant evidence that you don't worry much about keeping up appearances.

Anyway, the charitable interpretation of the attempts to shame you, of the expressions of disappointment in you, is obviously that your critics are correct and that what you argued was shameful and disappointing to many who generally think well of you.

That you are unable to identify the most straightforward and sensible interpretative of the intense negative reaction to your posts is, I assume, why you have yet to give adequate weight to the overwhelming tide of disagreement and disapprobation your posts elicited. If you did take your critics' disagreement seriously (and you have given no indication that you do) I think you'd come to agree that your argument was poorly-conceived and that you were wrong.

We all already know that you're not the kind of guy who would just SAY you're wrong to get folks to back off. It would seem that you're the kind of guy who ignores the possibility that he's wrong and write posts about preference falsification instead.

You can "turn the other cheek" and ignore the possibility that there are good reasons you were slapped, or you can look your critics in the eye and seriously consider why you might have deserved to be slapped silly. I say this as a friend.

Patri Friedman writes:

While Tom West is of course correct if one's goal is to convince people, I am of the strong belief that the mindset he suggests is antithetical to truth discovery and the scientific process. If you focus, not on what is true, not on your own logic and evidence, but on how people will react, you leave the mental mode of logic and reason and enter the mode of populism and demagoguery. If you are writing a book meant to sway people, this is good. If you are trying to figure out what is true, this is horrible.

I'm pretty sure Bryan was trying to figure out what was true. And that is his main goal - not swaying people. He should be less surprised at the reaction, but his methods were right for his goals.

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