Updated: Mar 2
In school, we learn that truth is conventional. Truth is what people collectively agree upon, and the result of this collective agreement is sound knowledge. America won its independence in 1776. a^2 + b^2 = c^2. It is grammatically incorrect to write a sentence with a subject but no predicate. These and many more are the truths of our world, and even though we may not entirely understand every shared truth, we generally don’t question.
Although much of what each of us knows about the world fits neatly under the umbrella of shared truths, there are things that some know which others don’t. There are some truths that only a select minority know, such as the consequences of arcane equations in quantum physics. The more esoteric the truth you see, the less chance there is that others around you share your view, to the point that you might even see something no other living person sees.
Unless you’re a great artist, scientist, or entrepreneur however, that’s unlikely. It’s far more likely that your private truths aren’t so much unshared by others as they are withheld from public conversation.
There are many reasons why an individual may choose to shield their private truth from the public eye. It may be a particularly self-effacing or embarrassing piece of knowledge. It may be the kind of truth that could be wielded dangerously by someone else with different motives. But above all, it may be the kind of truth that, if shared openly, poses danger directly to the person who recognizes it.
Many of us can be thankful that in this era, the danger posed is not typically physical, as it would have been to anyone who openly criticized Stalin or challenged the extent of Robespierre’s revolutionary program. But grave danger is not constituted solely in the realm of bodily harm. In sharing your truth, you might be in danger of alienating yourself from friends and family, of losing your job or your status in society. An ever-present danger is to the truth seeker’s reputation. Galileo was marginalized for what he knew; abolitionists were treated as naive dreamers at best, traitors at worst; Bill Cosby’s accusers were regarded as attention-seeking blackmailers, lying for their own personal gain.
Until they weren’t. Unfortunately, the process of transforming the heretic into a genius, the traitorous dreamer into a noble revolutionary, the attention-seeking blackmailer into someone wronged seeking justice, is sacrificial. If one’s private knowledge is not reflected in the public sphere, there’s only one very risky way of finding out whether anyone shares a similar view: by making the private public.
When someone goes out on a limb in this way, and risks damage to their reputation or worse, success looks like “the slow clap”. You, the protector of private truth, simply can’t stand it any longer. You stand up, and passionately tell everyone your view. You finish, and a terrible silence falls. You feel like a crazy person. But then, clap. A moment passes. Clap... Clap. Another person joins in, and another, until the room has accelerated from a single clap piercing the dead air to uproarious applause.
You may not find yourself in that position, choosing to risk everything for a chance to realign a false public view with the true private view. But not every dislocation between public discourse and private knowledge is constituted so dramatically. Each day every one of us tells little lies, sparing ourselves and others the harsh truth. Most of us don’t seem to voluntarily choose to operate falsely in this way, but it’s hard-wired in our instinct to cohere with the herd. Don’t stand out and you won’t be targeted.
In our industry, it’s well known that focus group participants are prone to conforming to the views of the most eloquent or outspoken member of the group, regardless of the nuance of their own personal preferences. A good moderator will enact certain strategies to undermine this phenomenon and invite a more open discussion, but the only way to guarantee that every individual’s views are represented completely free of influence is to have him or her write them down beforehand. It can be surprising the degree to which someone will contradict what they wrote privately when speaking publicly, even in an interaction carefully designed for openness and freedom of expression.
The implications of this bifurcation between private and public truth extend far beyond the realm of research. For instance, one reason why most pollsters incorrectly predicted Hillary Clinton’s victory may well have been voters’ reluctance to admit to voting for Donald Trump. Furthermore, our increasingly polarized politics may be explained by this divide between what’s secretly true in our own heads and what’s held to be true among others. If you sense your private truth won’t peacefully assimilate with a friend’s political views, you might decide to keep it to yourself, or tell a few lies to avoid the confrontation.
What is to be done about this troubling tendency? The research of psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Timur Kuran both strongly suggest the roots are biological. Given that in evolutionary timescales 1,000 years is a blink of the eye, it doesn’t seem we’ll be capable of rewiring ourselves anytime soon. However, as Nassim Taleb argues in the prescient Black Swan, being aware of one’s predisposition enables correcting for it.
In mundane situations, that correction entails modest social bravery, akin to speaking up when someone’s got food stuck in their teeth. Cowering from the friendly duty to inform the person will result only in their trust for you being shaken when they inevitably discover what you could plainly see but didn’t say. Similarly, sheltering what may seem to be disagreeable preferences only deepens the divide between the individual’s worldview and the publicly accepted narrative. That divide might expand at a glacial pace, but if it is allowed to grow sufficiently wide for enough individuals, the violence it could facilitate will make us wish we’d spoken up when the stakes were lower.
To speak up against fundamental falsehood when no one seems likely to join in takes heroic courage. You might stand up to speak the truth and be shouted down, or worse. But you might be met with a single clap, that first acknowledgment, brave in its own right, that what you’ve said is true.