A scientific experiment shows that the election liberated people to express feelings they’d otherwise keep to themselves.
By Cass R Sunstein
May 26, 2017, 6:00 AM PDT
In the U.S. and Europe, many people worry that if prominent politicians signal that they dislike and fear immigrants, foreigners and people of minority religions, they will unleash people’s basest impulses and fuel violence. In their view, social norms of civility, tolerance and respect are fragile. If national leaders such as President Donald Trump flout those norms, they might unravel.
The most careful work on this general subject comes from Duke University economist Timur Kuran, who has studied the topic of “preference falsification.” In Kuran’s view, there is a big difference between what people say they think and what they actually think. Sometimes for better or sometimes for worse, people’s statements and actions are inhibited by prevailing social norms. When norms start to disintegrate, we can see startlingly fast alterations in what people say and do.
Kuran’s leading example is the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, which, he says, was long sustained by the widespread misconception that other people supported communism. Once prominent citizens started to announce, in public, that they abhorred communism, others felt freer to say that they abhorred it too, and regimes were bound to collapse.
Something must be done to prevent things like the collapse of Communism from ever happening again!
There is a strong taboo on anti-Semitism, which limits its public expression.
It’s hard to test these kinds of ideas rigorously, but in an ingenious new paper, a team of economists has done exactly that.
Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago, Georgy Egorov of Northwestern University and Stefano Fiorin of the University of California at Los Angeles designed an elaborate experiment to test whether Trump’s political success affects Americans’ willingness to support, in public, a xenophobic organization. …
All participants were then asked an assortment of questions, including whether they would authorize the researchers to donate $1 to The Federation for American Immigration Reform, accurately described as an anti-immigrant organization whose founder has written, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” If participants agreed to authorize the donation, they were told that they would be paid an additional $1. …
For those who were not informed about Trump’s expected victory in their state, giving to the anti-immigration group was a lot more attractive when anonymity was assured: 54 percent authorized the donation under cover of secrecy as opposed to 34 percent when the authorization might become public. But for those who were informed that Trump would win, anonymity didn’t matter at all. When so informed, about half the participants were willing to authorize the donation regardless of whether they received a promise of anonymity.
As an additional test, Bursztyn and his colleagues repeated their experiment in the same states during the first week after Trump’s election. They found that Trump’s victory also eliminated the effects of anonymity — again, about half the participants authorized the donation regardless of whether the authorization would be public.
The upshot is that if Trump had not come on the scene, a lot of Americans would refuse to authorize a donation to an anti-immigrant organization unless they were promised anonymity. But with Trump as president, people feel liberated. Anonymity no longer matters, apparently because Trump’s election weakened the social norm against supporting anti-immigrant groups. It’s now OK to be known to agree “that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
… Sometimes people don’t say what they think, or do as they like, because of their beliefs about the beliefs of their fellow citizens. A nation’s leader can give strong signals about those beliefs — and so diminish the effects of social norms that constrain ugly impulses.
There’s no need for free speech. Just ask Cass Sunstein, he’ll inform you what is an ugly view and what is a beautiful one. For example, beautiful views include Cass’s idea that the government should hire agents provocateur to “cognitively infiltrate” online conspiracy theorist forums. And here’s another beautiful idea of Sunstein’s: