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Understanding Collective Illusions and Their Impact on Society
In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Roberta Fusaro engages in a conversation with Todd Rose, a former Harvard University professor and the cofounder of the think tank, Populace. They delve into the key ideas presented in Todd’s latest book, “Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions” (Hachette Book Group, February 2022).
Unraveling the Problem
“What problem were you hoping to solve by writing this book?” Roberta asks Todd. Todd responds by highlighting the prevailing sentiment shared by people across the country during the past few years, especially amidst the pandemic. Regardless of their political leanings, individuals have felt a sense of confusion and disbelief at the growing divide among fellow citizens. Todd’s work at Populace offers an alternative perspective: that despite appearances, we are not as divided as we think. He introduces the concept of collective illusions, which shed light on why this perception of division exists.
Understanding Collective Illusions
Todd explains that collective illusions are essentially social lies. They arise when individuals in a group conform to a course of action they don’t actually agree with, falsely believing that it aligns with the desires of the majority. As a result, entire groups can find themselves pursuing paths that go against their true intentions. Todd emphasizes that many of us have experienced moments where we remain silent about our opinions, assuming we are the only ones who hold them. Research reveals that self-silencing is common, with nearly two-thirds of Americans admitting to this behavior.
The Illusion at Work
The workplace, Todd asserts, is one domain where collective illusions tend to thrive. The financial considerations and the fear of speaking up often lead individuals to conform even when they desire change. Todd shares findings from a comprehensive opinion study conducted by Populace, which indicates that illusions about social issues are prevalent not only at work, but also across various demographics. Many individuals yearn for more meaningful work, authentic inclusion, and the freedom to be their true selves.
Acting against Our Own Interests
Todd explores how individuals end up working against their own self-interests. Research shows that a majority of people desire benefits such as childcare and work-life balance support, but refrain from pursuing them due to the mistaken belief that others don’t want them either. This behavior perpetuates illusions, as not taking advantage of available resources sends a signal to others that these benefits are not desired. Consequently, entire organizations may engage in behaviors that align with the illusions but contradict the actual preferences of their members.
Collective Illusions vs. Groupthink
Drawing a distinction between collective illusions and groupthink, Todd highlights that both concepts stem from the desire to conform. While groupthink occurs when individuals accurately perceive the desires of the group and go along, collective illusions arise when individuals are mistaken about the group’s desires. Acting upon these mistaken perceptions leads the group to behave in ways that deviate from their actual preferences. Todd emphasizes that a truly bad decision occurs when individuals violate their own values and preferences to belong to a group that never shared those values to begin with.
Unraveling the Causes
Todd explains that collective illusions occur due to the inherent wiring of our brains. Humans are intrinsically social beings and have a deep-seated desire to be accepted by their groups. He uses the example of conforming to societal beauty standards to illustrate how our brains reward us for going along with the group and create an error signal when we deviate from it. However, our brains are flawed at estimating group consensus and often mistake the loudest voices for the majority opinion.
The Role of Technology
Todd acknowledges the influence of technology, particularly social media, in the creation and perpetuation of collective illusions. While social media platforms allow everyone to have a voice, the content generated tends to be dominated by a small fraction of users who often hold extreme views. As a result, individuals who don’t want to go against their groups may engage in self-silencing, further reinforcing the illusion. Todd questions how a democracy can function effectively if people cannot openly express their opinions.
Collectivism and Cancel Culture
Discussing the relationship between collective illusions and cancel culture, Todd characterizes cancel culture as an extreme manifestation of collective illusions. Cancel culture involves punishing individuals who hold differing opinions, often resulting in social and economic consequences. Todd explains that in such situations, individuals may engage in “preference falsification,” in which they pretend to align with a group’s views out of fear. However, he notes that the primary reason for self-silencing is not cancel culture, but rather a genuine desire to avoid hurting others’ feelings.
Liberation from Illusions
Todd proposes a three-step approach to breaking free from collective illusions. At an individual level, we must find the moral courage to express our genuine opinions and refrain from self-silencing. Simultaneously, we need to create an environment that encourages others to do the same, fostering a commitment to free expression. Todd also emphasizes the importance of organizational leaders understanding the illusory nature of group consensus and creating conditions that allow for open and honest communication in the workplace.
Todd provides practical strategies for individuals to overcome collective illusions. He suggests critically evaluating the choices we make and asking others to articulate their reasons behind their beliefs or decisions. This approach helps to unveil illusions that arise from blind conformity. Furthermore, Todd recommends injecting uncertainty into group discussions, allowing for a more open and inclusive exchange of ideas. By challenging the illusions that divide us, we can pave the way for progress and genuine understanding.
Embracing a Way Forward
Todd concludes by highlighting the importance of recognizing collective illusions as a significant threat to our society. By understanding how these illusions create division and erode trust, we can work towards deconstructing them. He emphasizes the need to embrace open dialogue and engage with diverse perspectives, even when disagreements arise. Todd believes that by reclaiming these core values, we can navigate out of the current cultural spiral and make meaningful progress as a united society.
Watch the full interview
To gain a more in-depth understanding of the concepts discussed, we encourage you to watch the full interview on the 5 WS website.