"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance

 and a people who mean to be their own governors

 must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Let The Preference Cascade Begin!

Economist Timur Kuran has developed a theory called preference falsification to explain why some government policies and social practices go on for such a long time and then can suddenly, and dramatically, change.

In his book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Kuran suggests that when individuals have private preferences about a public matter they often falsify their preferences about the subject out of a desire to maintain acceptance and respect. Individuals often display positions or attitudes that they do not really favor. Or they may remain mute, refraining from expressing positions on issues they really feel strongly about. Either way, when this happens the individual is said to falsify his preference.

Glenn Reynolds provides us with an excellent example. He asks us to remember after 9/11 when people were amazed at the ubiquitous display of American flags and other demonstrations of patriotism. Had Americans suddenly become more patriotic? Probably not. More likely, they always have been - they just didn't realize that it was okay to show it.

The scorning of patriotism after the Vietnam era may have been a case of "preference falsification". A process in which social pressures cause people to express sentiments that differ from those they really feel, such as when patriotism began to be treated as uncool. People, who wanted to be cool, or at least to seem cool, stopped demonstrating patriotism, even if they felt it.

People tend to read social signals about what is approved and what is disapproved behavior and, in general, to modify their conduct accordingly. Others then rely on this behavior to draw wrong conclusions about what people think, and allow those conclusions to shape their own actions.

When this happens, other people are influenced by example in what's known as a "preference cascade." Other people go along with the trend, perhaps without even fully realizing it. The result is a situation in which a lot of people's behaviors don’t really match their beliefs, but merely their beliefs about what is considered acceptable.

Such situations are unstable, because a variety of shocks can cause people to realize the difference and to suddenly feel comfortable about showing their true beliefs and thinking.

Reynolds cites the "preference cascade" as a plausible cause of the seemingly swift collapse of totalitarian regimes. Think of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, the Ukraine and now the events in the Middle East. Through the example of others, people began to realize that they had a choice, they were not alone in their thinking, others felt much the same way, and that change was possible. They began to take action.

We believe the same may be be true of our own political situation in the United States and especially in a state such as New Jersey. We have written about “the club” tax receivers and Democrats have used to keep us in line. Aren’t most of us are afraid to question government spending on programs for what the politicians call the “most vulnerable”? One mention of the children, the elderly, the poor, the disabled or the mentally ill and we are putty in a politican’s hands.

People do not like to think of themselves as mean, cold hearted, greedy, cruel, racist and evil. And they certainly don’t want others to see them in this light. We may secretly question the amount of money spent or the effectiveness of a good many government programs, but we are silenced by “the club”. We go along and are too intimidated to go against what we perceive to be the opinion of our fellow citizens.

Now push has come to shove in New Jersey. People are being forced to move from their homes because they can no longer afford to pay the ever rising property taxes. They worry about their ability to pay their monthly bills, to save for their children’s future, their family’s health care needs and their retirement. They work hard and seem to be getting nowhere – taxes take an ever increasing chunk of their income. Taxpayers have become the most vulnerable and pressure is building for a solution.

Income taxes, sales taxes and any number of other taxes are created or are increased to pay for larger and additional programs for what we have euphemistically called “the tax receivers”. Perhaps we have reached a tipping point where people are quietly beginning to question those that profit from “public service” and the taxpayer’s dollars.

Quietly we begin to ask, have we no right to our own money and to provide for our families with the fruit of our own labor? Why is it selfish for us to care about our own welfare? Is their no limit on the financial sacrifice we are expected to make in the name of “helping” others.

So maybe it’s time to speak out against the tyranny of “the club” and make it safe for others to be honest and speak their mind. Let’s make people aware of alternative views and solutions to society’s problems. Let’s provide hope to others that things can change and that united we can make it happen.

We can get out from under “the club” and still remain decent and compassionate people. We have been patient, we have made considerable sacrifices, but we have not seen the results the politicians have promised. It’s time for real reform and leaders with the capacity to break out of the failed thinking that has gotten us to this horrendous mess we call New Jersey government.

Join the revolution, let the "preference cascade" begin!


At 3:41 AM, Blogger tompain said...

Great concept. I'm off to Amazon for the book. I just had a vision of a "preference cascade" bringing about a rapid shift in the prevalent view of the Muslim world toward civil rights, unfettered democracy, and the U.S. ... brought a smile to my face. Thanks.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Sluggo said...

I wondered what you meant by that when you mentioned it in a comment elsewhere. Very interesting.

What does the book have to say about what sets off a preference cascade? It would seem that you need a leader to push people over a tipping point or an event that gives a sudden new perspective (9/11). It's good to remember it's not always a good thing. The depredations of the Versailles Treaty pushed the German people into the arms of Hitler. Is the tipping point engineerable? Is the direction of the cascade?

We'll do what we can this year, but we can only hope that our collective voices provide some impetus. The taxpayer revolts of California a generation ago were fueled by property taxes. I'm encouraged by the line the Asbury Park Press seems to be taking.

It's going to be an interesting year.

At 10:07 PM, Blogger Abraham said...

During the election cycle, keeping my right-wing mouth shut was difficult, but it became the standard. Motive was irrelevant, I would like to go back to being outspoken.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Mr. Snitch said...

The Japanese famously note "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down". That is the essence of the "preference" theory. The leader who ignores it, and chooses to believe the feedback of those dependent on him, is a fool. The theory explains why getting the real skinny on how the public, or your employees, feel is not so simple as it might seem. (And it accounts for the intrinsic value of outside consultants and polls.)

I personally have subscribed to this theory for some time, although I was unaware of a label for it until I read it on this site. As for human behavior immediately post-9/11, the theory only partly explains what happened. Yes, there are wellsprings of patriotism and religion that go largely untapped and/or repressed (expressing them is seen, for one thing, as an admission of weakness) most of the time. That these feelings come out during times of crisis is pretty well established (at the end of George Pal's War of the Worlds, eventually the survivors all wind up in chuches). It isn't front of mind simply because, thankfully, we don't undergo too many shared mass crises.

I did a small documentary on memes during the immediate 9/11 aftermath, breaking them down by subject and citing examples. The predominant memes were patriotism, God/love, and heroism/sacrifice. Part of the reason these memes surfaced was because the human mind (and especially the American mind I think) seeks out symmetrical patterns.

In other words, we did not want to accept 9/11's violence as a meaningless act, so we employed our most deeply held beliefs (those that give us comfort in difficult times) and wove them into the tragedy. Take heroism as an example. The victims had to be made into heroes and not just unfortunate people who tragically were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Heroes die for a reason, a cause. It did not matter, at the time, that these were not people dying for a cause but merely people trapped in a building. They had to be heroes. (A very small minority did object, very quietly, to this idea, citing instances of those who intentionally put themselves in harm's way to achieve a higher purpose.) WIth distance, we are less inclined to cling to the belief that the dead were heroes. This does not mean their deaths were less tragic, merely that time has naturally allowed us to be less shaken by the impact of that day.

As the proper study of man is man, this is a very worthwhile post.

At 7:09 AM, Anonymous www.guipuzcoa-3d.com said...

Oh my god, there's a great deal of useful material in this post!


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