Preference Falsification and Support for Gay Marriage

Andrew Gelman is stunned that support for gay marriage has increased more in states with already liberal attitudes:

In the past fifteen years, gay marriage has increased in popularity in all fifty states. No news there, but what was a surprise to me is where the largest changes have occurred. The popularity of gay marriage has increased fastest in the states where gay rights were already relatively popular in the 1990s.

In 1995, support for gay marriage exceeded 30% in only six states: New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Vermont. In these states, support for gay marriage has increased by an average of almost 20 percentage points. In contrast, support has increased by less than 10 percentage points in the six states that in 1995 were most anti-gay-marriage–Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Idaho.

Here’s the picture showing all 50 states:


I was stunned when I saw this picture. I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some “regression to the mean,” with the lowest values increasing the most and the highest values declining, relative to the average. But that’s not what’s happening at all. What’s going on?

Gelman offers two possible explanations: First, gays are more likely to come out of the closet in liberal states, and so the average person in these states knows more openly gay people. Second, politicians in tolerant states have electoral incentives to argue for the liberal position, thus pushing public discourse in that direction.

I suspect both of these factors have some influence, but I think another may be more important. I suspect that public opinion on highly salient issues with strong signalling value tends to be self-reinforcing. A useful framework for thinking about this is Timur Kuran’s model of preference falsification.

Kuran distinguishes between an individual’s public opinion – the views he openly expresses on a particular issue – and private opinion – the way he privately feels about this issue. Since there are social costs to expressing unpopular views, public opinion will be systematically biased towards the social consensus compared to the underlying distribution of private opinions. There is social pressure for those in Utah to express opposition to gay marriage, while there could well be social pressure to express support in New York. If few people share your opinion, you’re more likely to keep quiet or actively falsify your view. Via this mechanism, social pressure leads to homogeneity in public opinion, but leaves private opinion unchanged.

If we think socialization matters in creating private opinion, though, preference falsification will also affect private opinions. When there seems to be a strong consensus on some issue, social learning will bias the underlying distribution of private opinions towards the consensus view relative to the situation without preference falsification. This is obviously pretty closely related to the psychological phenomenon of group polarization.

The preference falsification view is pretty close to Gelman’s hypothesis that liberal states encourage gays to come out of the closet. Social environments which reduce the costs of coming out as gay also reduce the costs of coming out as gay-tolerant. Beyond some threshold, the social payoff from expressing gay-tolerant attitudes becomes positive, which means we’re likely to have closeted bigots rather than closeted liberals. This pro-gay preference falsification will then reinforce pro-gay private opinion, accelerating the liberalization of attitudes in already liberal states.

I heartily endorse Gelman’s call for further study:

We can look at other issues, not just on gay rights, to see where this sort of divergence occurs, and where we see the more expected uniform swing or regression-to-the-mean patterns.

My guess is that issue salience would be a good predictor of divergence. It would also be informative to try and break things down to areas smaller than states. If the preference falsification explanation works, opinion converges within social networks. County or town data should show a stronger effect, as people are more likely to interact with those geographically close to them. Social networking sites could provide some pretty awesome data if you could get entire tightly interconnected networks to share their opinions.

Support for the Draft among Draftable Males

Paul Walker asks an interesting question in the comments about men being more supportive than women of a military draft:

Any age breakdown on that. I would have thought that those men in the draftable age group would be against.

I replied by saying:

I’ll have a look at that, but my suspicion is that men of draftablle age would still be more in favour than women of draftable age. The rational/instrumental voter hypothesis doesn’t hold up empirically in a number of cases. I wouldn’t be surprise if draftable men were more in favour than nondraftable men. If political beliefs are expressive than instrumental, it could be that young men would want to be careful not to be seen as the sort of coward who would avoid fighting for their country.

I just had another look at the GSS, and it seems I was right that draftable men are still more in favour of the draft than women of the same age, but wrong in my speculation than draftable men might be more in favour than nondraftable men. The age of the draft has varied over time in the US, so here’s the data broken down into a few age groups:




draft46-older1So while draftable males, whether you suppose the maximum draft age would be 25, 30 or 45, are more likely than women of the same group to support the draft, older males are even more likely to be in favour. The level of support among men aged 18-30 is less than that of women of all ages. These results are all statistically significant at p<.001 (shown in a different window of GSS’s data analysis tool, and I’m too lazy to download the data to make my own tables). Of course, there could be sampling bias – there are certainly more females than males answering the survey which should lead us to be somewhat suspicious.

Libertarian Misogyny in Theory and Practice

I find the furore over Peter Thiel’s comments on female suffrage and the growth of the welfare state rather disturbing. (See here and here for some sensible comments.) Here’s the offending statement:

The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

The responses to this were spirited, but not quite on point.

What’s attracting so much attention to his piece is that he pretty openly states that he’d like to disenfranchise women and “welfare” recipients, which I guess is a way of saying that voting is only acceptable if the franchise is limited to the landed gentry.

I may be spinning myself into mendacity here, but I can’t find the place where Thiel says that he would prefer women or welfare recipients be denied suffrage. He did suggest that female suffrage moved public opinion in an unlibertarian direction. These two propositions are not equivalent. I’m not in absolute agreement with the claim that Thiel does make, but I certainly think it is a reasonable one deserving of serious consideration rather than indignation and ad hominem attacks.

I do think Thiel’s remarks were slightly unwise insofar as they framed female suffrage only in a negative light, without acknowledging the importance of political equality to liberal ideals. He probably would have been better to stipulate that he doesn’t advocate a return to male-only suffrage, which he certainly doesn’t. It would be nice, though, if people were able to simply write what they mean without taking special care to detail everything they don’t.

There is very good evidence that the extension of the franchise to women increased the size of government by making the median voter more inclined toward redistribution and social spending. Many policy preferences, including redistribution and social spending, are empirically related to gender. Women on average prefer a larger welfare state than men. You could tell an evolutionary story about women’s nurturing nature to explain this, or a cultural story about men being socialized as cold-hearted individualists. Either way, the gender gap in public opinion is a fact which will not go away because you find it uncomfortable.

Given that I don’t like a whole lot of government spending, I see the growth of government accompanying female suffrage as a bad thing. Does this mean that I would prefer women never had the vote, or that I would like to take it away from them now? No, of course it doesn’t. Favouring one group over another in this way is itself extremely illiberal, and a libertarian should reject such a proposal even if it were likely to produce more liberal policy in other respects. Forcibly silencing socialists might reduce voter preference for the welfare state too, but that’s not something any libertarian should be prepared to do. I’ve never met (nor heard of, read, etc) a single libertarian who has advocated male-only suffrage. Libertarians are surely the least likely to equate finding a negative consequence of something and calling for it to be banned.

Taking away all the PC bullshit, I find the argument over gender and liberalism pretty interesting. I think it’s pretty incontrovertible that female voters demand more redistribution and social spending. Female suffrage leads to bigger government. I’m a libertarian and I like much less government than your average voter. Female suffrage is bad for me in this respect. There are other issues, though, on which women seem closer to the libertarian position. I can’t be bothered investigating this properly, but by looking as the GSS, we can see that men and women in the United States (between 1972 and 2006) significantly differ on a great many issues. A look through suggests to me that consistent with Thiel’s claim, men tend to be more libertarian than women in most respects. Women are more in favour of price controls, and other forms of government intervention in the economy. They also express less willingness to allow unpopular views (anti-religion, communist, gay) to be aired in public, and more likely to favour a law against interracial marriage, for example.*



There are, of course, some issues on which women are more liberal than men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have to do with violence. A return to the military draft is preferred by significantly more men than women:


Men also seem more willing to give police arbitrary powers. More men than women think that it’s okay for a cop to hit a person for swearing at the cop:


I find militarism and police violence particularly troubling, because I think they give government the capacity to erode other freedoms much more effectively, particularly in times of crisis. Men and women each have their own illiberal biases. It seems to me that women’s are greater in number, but men’s are potentially more harmful. I’m not sure what to worry about more.

*I’m pretty sure this has changed over time, with women now being more socially liberal on things such as interracial and same-sex marriage. At any point in time, women seem more likely than men to hold the more traditional view. It was once radical to favour interracial marriage. It’s now antisocial to oppose it.