Book Review: Collective Illusions

Book cover: Collective Illusions by Todd Rose

Collective Illusions by Todd Rose explores the creation and maintenance of social lies that are fuelled by false assumptions, conformity, silence, and a lack of questioning. Drawing on social psychology and neuroscience, this book shows just how skewed these norms can be from the reality of what most people actually think.

Collective illusions occur when most members of a group privately reject what appears to be the widely accepted group norm. This phenomenon has also been referred to as pluralistic ignorance, but the author explains that he prefers the term collective illusions because it’s not so much a matter of people not knowing what others think; rather, it’s an issue of being convinced that we know and being wrong.

One example that the book addresses is people’s perceptions about what constitutes success. In a study conducted by Populace, a think tank that the author co-founded, 97% of people personally considered success to be a matter of having meaning and purpose in their lives. At the same time, 92% of survey respondents thought that most other people defined success in terms of career, money, and fame. That is one massive illusion.

The book addresses various factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of collective illusions, including our brains being hardwired for conformity, which had a survival advantage for our ancestors way back in the day. The fear of ostracism is also explored as a major motivating factor, and the same part of our brains responds to both social rejection and physical pain.

The author also addresses the role social media plays in collective illusions. These platforms give people with fringe opinions the ability to quickly and easily create the perception of majority consensus in support of their positions, which can end up silencing the majority of people who actually have more moderate opinions. Bots can play an important role in further amplifying these fringe opinions and manufacturing consensus that doesn’t actually exist.

Politics was one of the areas the book addressed where collective illusions come into play. For example, candidate selection is heavily influenced by perceived electability, an illusion that can lead to the selection of candidates other than the ones people actually think would do the best job. Social media also feeds into the perception of growing political polarization, with the vocal fringe blowhards leading each side to perceive the other side as having more extreme views than the majority of people actually have.

The book explores the negative consequences of staying silent when we see problems with what appears to be the majority opinion. It can affect us as individuals, with our sense of self-worth and well-being taking a hit when we’re incongruent with our own beliefs and values. The author explains how self-censoring also feeds into collective illusions, as our conformity suggests to others that we agree with the apparent group norms, which sends the message to them to remain silent.

Throughout the book, the author emphasizes that although collective illusions can be powerful, they’re fragile because they’re based on lies, and they only exist because we all allow them to. That means that individuals can do a lot to poke holes in them. The final chapters addressed ways to do this, and the author encourages each of us to take responsibility for the part we play in sustaining these illusions. Even something as simple as asking “why?” or “why not?” can be powerful in exposing these illusions for what they are.

I found this book absolutely fascinating. It exposes a lot of things that we assume to be true as being built on nothing. I liked how the author encouraged readers to take personal responsibility for speaking up, not to the masses on the internet, but within our social groups. I thought this approach was really empowering.

I think this book would be really eye-opening for anyone who feels weighed down by social expectations, as it shows just how arbitrary many of those expectations are and how poorly they reflect what most people actually think. It offers really great insights into how our minds work and how we function in social groups, and I highly recommend it.

You may be interested in a post I wrote inspired by this book, Illusions of Normal: How Well Do We Know What Others Think?

Collective Illusions is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Collective Illusions”

  1. That Populace finding is quite amusing. So people tend to think meaning and purpose is important (making them sound good) while claiming it’s likely other people consider success to be about money, careers and fame (making them sound not so good).

    I get it though, it’s not hard to start feeling like that with making judgements, applying them to a larger proportion of the population and using it also to put distance between “themselves” and “others”. Such ‘illusions’ are especially easy to form and strengthen in the days of so much engagement, easy access to news and constant connection to the wider world.

    I like that the author goes on to talk about how holes can be poked in the thin fabric of collective illusions. I agree in how just pondering “why” or “why not” can be powerful to challenge thoughts like these.

    It really does sound like a well written, thought-provoking read that could make a difference to how you view and experience social pressures, unwritten rules and longstanding beliefs. xx

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