Boo! Coup!

Private Truths, Public Lies

THE FALL OF COMMUNISM and the demise of the Soviet Union had one thing in common: They caught most people by surprise.

Monumental events always astonish even the most seasoned observers, reports University of Southern California economist Timur Kuran, Ph.D. The reason: The interaction of social and psychological factors lead us to lie about our true opinions and perceptions. That, in turn, inhibits public discourse on an issue which prevents others from speaking up. The upshot is that everyone walks around unaware of the extent of true discontent.

According to Kuran, we hold two different sets of opinions: private ones that are fixed by our beliefs, and public ones which reflect our need for acceptance. They lead us to publicly espouse views that suit the prevailing political climate. Kuran labels this "Preference falsification"--we calculate the cost of expressing a preference and deem the pressure too great. The payoff to feigning agreement with the status quo is we avoid censure. But the cost is internal; we sacrifice personal integrity and psychological comfort.

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Though they appear inevitable in hindsight, revolutions can never be predicted. Our private preferences are like that--not accessible to pollsters and the like. And each person has his or her own equally unknowable "revolutionary threshold"--the point at which, when public opposition grows, he or she feels it safe to line up public preferences with private ones.

With differing thresholds, "a society can come to the brink of a revolution without anyone knowing," Kuran reports in World Politics.

He developed his novel theory to dispute the view do people's actions indicate their preferences. Then world events began to prove its wide applicability. In Romania, Kuran points out, it was only after crowds jeered their despised leader that enough people found the courage to rise in defiance.

Just because free speech is constitutionally guaranteed here, "it's dangerous to think that America is immune to preference falsification," Kuran told PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. "Social pressures on individuals are highly powerful."

If Kuran has a message, it is this: To the degree that discontent is unanticipated, it holds the potential for Sudden, explosive change.

Photo: RADICAL CHIC: Don't start the revolution without me. ((c) Eric Bouvet/Gamma-Liaison)

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