This post explores some of the issues that came up in Todd Rose’s book Collective Illusions, which I reviewed a few months ago. Collective illusions (also known as pluralistic ignorance) are the social norms and expectations that we think everyone else agrees with, when in reality, most people don’t privately agree with those norms and expectations. Yet we’re hardwired to conform with our social groups, and collective illusions can mean that everyone ends up doing what nobody wants to do. This also fits in well with what Sheva Rajaee wrote in Relationship OCD about the cult of what’s normal that we’re all indoctrinated in by the time we reach adulthood.
Todd Rose went so far as to say that when it comes to the things that matter to you, you’re likely completely wrong about what the majority of people think on at least half of those things. He also pointed out that we’re not good at detecting actual expertise, so when people seem confident, we’re likely to think that they know something we don’t and we should follow along. And there are a lot of confident people out there presenting themselves as gurus and telling us how we should be and what we should think, feel, and want.
Think of all the shoulds you’ve learned, expectations that come from society at large that you don’t actually want to do. What if no one else wants to do those things either?
In Todd Rose’s book, he wrote about a study that found that most people (97%) privately believe that success is about being the best they can be at what matters most to them. At the same time, 92% of people thought that most other people agree with the societal notion of success in terms of career, money, and fame. Because of that perception of what other people think and the innate desire to conform to social expectations, a whole lot of people are focusing on the career/money/fame element, since that seems like what they should do, rather than being what’s actually important to them.
What if more people decided to say screw it to what society seems to expect, and actually pursued success on their own terms? If a big chunk of that 97% of people who define success differently were to do that, the social norm could change pretty darn quickly.
We’re constantly hit with messaging that productivity matters, our worth depends on our productivity, and we should always be striving to do more, more, more. Even during the pandemic, there were some people getting loud saying you needed to find a new hobby, learn new things, start a new business, bake lots of sourdough bread, etc., etc.
But let’s take a step back from the insanity. Aside from the people who are loud and probably trying to get you to pay them money, who actually wants to be productive all the time? If you could put the rest of your world on pause for a day and do anything your little heart desired, would you choose a restful day doing things you enjoy, or would you choose an über-productive day?
My guess is that it’s a big fat collective illusion. I would also guess that most people would honestly prefer the former, but feel they should choose the latter. But if we recognize that the confident people are just trying to make money off of us and instead decide to ignore what they’re saying, why shouldn’t we be able to do what we want?
If you Google “ideal day”, you’ll get articles telling you about a routine that I have a hard time believing is anyone’s actual ideal day. If time checking email, attending to a to-do list, or waking up at 5am when you’re a night owl make it into that ideal day description, I call bullshit.
What do you absolutely love to do? What are those annoying things that you would love to be able to cut out if you could? Setting all expectations and obligations aside, who wouldn’t want an ideal day focused on things you love and free of annoying things? So why is the ideal day talk dominated by these productivity-focused people trying to sell you courses or books or whatever?
I suspect there are also collective illusions regarding self-care. We’re taught that self-care is selfish and we should prioritize other people’s needs, but who actually wants that? Setting all expectations and obligations aside, how is self-care not a secretly desirable thing?
We’re taught that in certain situations, there are things that we should or shouldn’t feel. That can lead to feeling guilty about feeling a certain way that goes against that. But maybe those feeling rules are built on one big collective illusion.
After all, open discussion of feelings doesn’t happen all that often, particularly when it comes to emotions that run contrary to feeling rules. Maybe a lot of people’s emotions don’t adhere to feeling rules, but they don’t feel comfortable enough to talk about it, which perpetuates the illusion that most people don’t feel those “wrong” emotions.
Your social circle
Social expectations would say that we’re supposed to have a large circle of friends. Sure, some people probably do want that, particularly people who are highly extraverted. But on the introversion-extraversion spectrum, most people aren’t at the highly extraverted end, and for a lot of people, a small circle of close friends may be a lot more appealing.
Todd Rose pointed out the power of asking “why?” or “why not?” to challenge social expectations that aren’t actually built on anything solid. The idea that we should achieve certain life milestones by certain ages is pervasive, yet it’s not built on a solid foundation.
This is a tough one, because people who haven’t achieved these milestones probably are getting hit with questions like “why haven’t you _______ yet?”
But maybe “why should I have?” could be a powerful alternative to going into self-defence mode, because the people asking those questions probably haven’t thought about a why.
In Sheva Rajaee’s book, she wrote about the “myth of the one.” Even at a young age, we’re hit with fairy tales and Disney movies depicting these knight in shining armour stories of love. But is this reality? If I think about the people I’ve known who’ve been in successful long-term relationships, that’s not their story. Sometimes the people with the great stories are the relationships that end up crashing and burning.
Maybe it’s a collective illusion that a good, solid, healthy relationship is the fairytale/movie version. Maybe it blinds us to the reality that solid relationships are built on work and partnership, and besides all of that, there are also single people living happy, fulfilled lives doing their own thing.
Todd Rose wrote about how social media allows for people with fringe ideas (and bots) to create rapid shifts in what’s perceived to be the consensus. These collective illusions can feed into “a deep, unsettling sense that something is wrong with our society.” Sounds about right.
Twitter seems particularly likely to feed into polarization because of the 280-character limit. That’s just not enough characters to be able to include nuance, so even posts by people firmly in the grey area are likely to appear as black or white. The nature of the platform can make grey area hard to find even if you tried, although that doesn’t mean that the grey area doesn’t exist.
Self-censoring and quietly going along probably feels like the safest option. But what if other people also disagree with perceived social expectations, and they’re staying silent because no one else seems to disagree? What if silence perpetuates illusions of a normal that doesn’t actually exist?
Maybe part of the power of blogging is that it offers a way to question the unwritten rules and expectations of the society we live in. It’s an alternative to silencing ourselves and sustaining collective illusions, and a way to question the things in the world around us that don’t make sense. It’s a way to see that there are other people who want different things than what’s served up to us as part of the dominant social messaging.
Maybe it’s okay to say “to hell with what’s normal” or “fuck what’s expected” and carve out our own paths. Sure, it’s not easy, but who knows, maybe that would be a whole lot more satisfying than bowing at the altar of the cult of what’s normal.