The Game Theoretic Trap of Cancel Culture — and How to Beat it

Ryan Nakade
5 min readSep 9, 2022
Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

While cancel culture is a phenomenon often attributed to the left, I believe it’s ubiquitous, taking place on all sides. Dissenting against the dominant narrative can get you ostracized, fired, de-platformed, or worse, whether you violate standards of political correctness, speak out against Trump, or believe in a false god. Cancel culture is a problem for innumerable reasons, reinforcing groupthink and polarization while quashing diverse perspectives. This article lays out the game theoretic mechanics driving cancel culture, as understanding how it works is key to defeating it.

To begin, we must understand two concepts integral to cancel dynamics:

  1. Pluralistic ignorance: Wrongly perceiving the minority position on a certain issue to be the majority position, or vice versa.
  2. Preference falsification: Publicly altering what you believe to fit in with the crowd, e.g. lying or not speaking up to avoid being canceled.

Caving to False Majorities

A vicious chicken-egg cycle emerges here: People misdiagnose how many people subscribe to a particular view, and then alter their real views to conform to their idea of what others believe. For example, let’s say I have criticisms of Black Lives Matter, but to avoid being canceled, I won’t publicly broach my views in fear of retaliation. But what if the crowd secretly holds the same views that I do? Here is the trap: Withholding my criticisms of BLM signals to everyone else that I actually support BLM, which reinforces everyone else’s belief that everyone supports BLM. By not sharing what we really believe (preference falsification), we reinforce everyone else’s misperception of what everyone else believes (pluralistic ignorance). Everyone believes everyone supports BLM, which drives preference falsification, which feeds pluralistic ignorance, and on and on in a vicious cycle where all dissent is suppressed. Even if the cancel mob is purely imaginary (pluralistic ignorance) people act as if it’s real (preference falsification). Acting as if it’s real reinforces the belief that it really exists.

This is how the chilling effect from a small minority captures the behaviors of the dominant majority, giving birth to the “silent majority.” It’s…

Ryan Nakade

Depolarization, mediation, dialogue. Integrative solutions to cultural conflict. And diaphanous goat whisperer.