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
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.
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
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
If Kuran has a message, it is this: To the degree that discontent
is unanticipated, it holds the potential for Sudden, explosive
Photo: RADICAL CHIC: Don't start the revolution without me. ((c)