#PulpNonFiction: To mask or not to mask? Social cooling and preference falsification

Masks are everywhere right now. In a literal sense we can't legally leave our houses without them. In a figurative sense, however, the masks we wear are a whole lot more confusing.

Lies of omission and lies of commission


Here, I refer to the twin phenomena known as social cooling and preference falsification. Social cooling refers to the lies of omission we tell each other to fit in with the status quo and preserve our social credit or brand reputation. Social cooling is self-censorship, keeping quiet when we have something valuable to say because we are afraid of what others will think of our true ideas and feelings. Preference falsification refers to the lies of commission we tell each other, pollsters and market research companies because we are embarrassed of admitting real preferences and intentions.

Listen to what I do, not to what I say


Marketers, of course, know the perils if preference falsification all too well. It’s well known that is customers lie to pollsters and to themselves - just like voters. You don’t determine what customers want by listening to what they tell you they want, you learn what they want by watching what they actually do. People may say they want brands to be more sustainable, but then go right out and purchase disposable fast fashion manufactured in a foreign sweat shop without batting an eye. Political pollsters know this too. If people did what they said they would do, for example, Hillary Clinton had a 85% chance of winning the 2016 American presidential race. (This year, for interest, the polls give Biden an 89% chance of beating Trump. Use that information as you will.)

Public preferences, private lies


Both these phenomena are unhealthily, if not downright dangerous. If everyone is wearing a mask all the time, pretending to agree with everyone else, how can we trust the majority opinion is indeed the majority opinion? If lies to fit in become the standard, shared values and public preferences tend towards the lowest common denominator. In an environment of distrust and deception, risk-taking - which is essential for innovation, growth and change - is discouraged, while the bland, basic and boring thrive as we pretend to like it. That playing-it-safe attitude, however, does not lead to world-changing process, or to great art and terribly exciting brand strategies. Almost everything worth doing, making or selling involves a degree of risk - risk that things won’t work out and risk that not everyone will like what you are doing.

However, not taking any risks at all may well be the biggest risk of all - the risk of missed opportunity at best and a long, slow decline into oblivion at worst. Boring, forgettable me-too brands and businesses do not win hearts and minds - or wallets.

And, if everyone is pretending all the time anyway, why should you care what they say they think in public anyway?


This thought, in turn, reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, a story in which it is slowly revealed that all the main characters are lying to each other; all pretending to be someone they are not in order to fit in with a group standard that doesn’t even exist. The moral of the story, of course, is that lying to yourself and to others about who you are and what you really stand for just creates unnecessary confusion and problems for everyone. And, more importantly, by being brave enough to drop your social mask and speak up, you can inspire others who have been wearing a similar mask to do the same.


About Bronwyn Williams

Futurist, economist and trend analyst. Partner at Flux Trends.
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