Author Talks: Why shouldn’t we all just get along?

Populace cofounder Todd Rose explains how conformity biases and our individual desires to fit in with the group can lead us all down the wrong path.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Roberta Fusaro chats with Todd Rose, a former Harvard University professor and the cofounder of the think tank, Populace, about his latest book, Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions (Hachette Book Group, February 2022). The book explores how the desire to fit in can create massive misunderstandings, leading entire groups down paths they never wanted to pursue in the first place. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem were you hoping to solve by writing this book?

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Over the last few years in this country, particularly during the pandemic—regardless of whether you’re my libertarian friends or my progressive friends—the common sentiment I hear is some version of, “Am I crazy or did the whole country seem to go crazy almost overnight?” People feel this sense of, “I knew we had differences, but it feels like we’re starting to question some pretty fundamental values that we thought we all held.”

Our work in this space at Populace, my think tank, has been about understanding what we call collective illusions. For me, this is an answer: “Actually, no, we are not as divided as we think we are.” Understanding the phenomenon of collective illusions not only helps you understand why that’s true but also why it feels like it isn’t true.

What are collective illusions?

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Collective illusions are social lies. They happen in situations where most people in a group end up going along with something they don’t agree with simply because they incorrectly believe that is what most people in the group want. As a result, entire groups can end up doing things that almost nobody wants.

We’ve all had those moments where we think we’re the only one in the room—whether at work, or with friends, or whatever—that holds a view. Rather than speak up, we say nothing, and we’re not alone. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of all Americans admit to this kind of self-silencing.

We’ve all had those moments where we think we’re the only one in the room—whether at work, or with friends, or whatever—that holds a view. Rather than speak up, we say nothing, and we’re not alone. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of all Americans admit to this kind of self-silencing.

But you can see the problem here, right? If most people are self-silencing, then the loud fringe is the only voice that people hear, and the result is this collective illusion. That’s exactly what’s going on in the country today.

What do collective illusions look like at work?

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Of all the places where collective illusions reside, the institution of business (and the workplace) ends up being one of the most prominent areas, in part because when I’m at work, it’s not the same as being with friends or even just strangers. There’s a lot of financial incentive, if you will, and thinking about “maybe I shouldn’t speak up.”

Populace did a private opinion study about what people want out of the future of their own work. It’s pretty comprehensive, looking at tradeoff priorities, and what I found so interesting is that we’re seeing illusions about social issues not only at work but also across all demographics—the vast majority of people want something different out of the work they do now. They want more purpose. They want it to be less transactional. They want real inclusion—not just representation, although that’s important—and to feel like they can be themselves at work.

Interestingly, those same people are convinced that most other people don’t want that. Even in the very nature of our work, we’re seeing these illusions where we’re just wrong about the group.

How do we end up acting against our own self-interests?

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Other folks have done research that found a supermajority of people want things like childcare and other benefits that make work–life balance work. But they’re so convinced that most other people don’t want those benefits that they choose not to take them or support them because they don’t want to look like they’re standing out.

The irony of that is that by me not saying what I really think and not taking advantage of something that’s available to me, I am giving the signal to everybody else that I don’t want it. We all end up under this illusion. The entire organization can end up behaving in ways that almost nobody really wants.

How are collective illusions different from groupthink?

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It’s a sort of special kind of groupthink—both of them are coming from a place of conformity, where we just want to be with our group.

Groupthink happens when you are right about what the group wants, and you just go along. Collective illusions are this special case where you were wrong about what the group wanted to begin with, so your conformity leads the group members to behave in ways that they didn’t actually want. Talk about bad decision making, right?

If you want to conform and go along, that’s up to you. You can decide whether it’s good or bad for you. A truly bad decision, though, is one where you violate your own values or preferences, and you did it to belong to a group that didn’t even want those values or preferences in the first place, so it’s a doubly bad decision.

How and why do these illusions occur?

Collective illusions happen because of how our brains are wired. As I talk about in the book, we are wired to want to be with our groups.

Take something as subjective as who you think is good-looking: say I ask you this question as part of a test, you give me your response, and I tell you that your response is the same as the average of all the people who have taken the test before. You don’t even know them, so why should you care? But that information triggers a dopamine reward response in your brain for going along with the group.

Conversely, if I told you that your response was against the group, it would trigger an error signal in your brain—this cascading electrical signal that short-circuits everything else and tells you, “Something’s wrong. Adjust your behavior.” That’s conformity bias.

For conformity to work, you have to know what the group wants, but here’s the rub: Your brain, for how great it is at so many other things, is spectacularly bad at estimating group consensus, because it uses these shortcuts. And ultimately, it ends up mistaking noise for numbers. Your brain assumes that the loudest voices repeated the most often are the majority.

How does technology contribute to the creation of collective illusions?

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While social media has that democratizing tendency of giving everyone a voice, which is fantastic, that means it gives everyone a voice, right? Take something like Twitter; we know from research that 80 percent of all content on Twitter is generated by only 10 percent of the users, and those 10 percent are not remotely representative of the rest of the country. They tend to go more extreme on almost every social issue.

If only 10 percent of people hold an opinion, but you think it’s 80 percent, then your brain is going to assume that’s the group consensus.

If you don’t want to go against your group, rather than speaking up, you’ll just say nothing—you’ll self-silence. But if enough of us do that, then this fringe voice is the only voice that anyone hears, and the result is a collective illusion. That’s exactly what’s going on today; two-thirds of Americans admit to self-silencing right now. How does a democracy function if most people can’t be honest with each other about what they actually think?

If you don’t want to go against your group, rather than speaking up, you’ll just say nothing—you’ll self-silence. But if enough of us do that, then this fringe voice is the only voice that anyone hears, and the result is a collective illusion. That’s exactly what’s going on today; two-thirds of Americans admit to self-silencing right now. How does a democracy function if most people can’t be honest with each other about what they actually think?

What’s the relationship between collective illusions and cancel culture?

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Cancel culture is the most egregious form of the cause of collective illusions, in that it’s not enough that we’re disagreeing, but I’m willing to ruin your life because we disagree. I’m willing to punish you socially, economically, sometimes even physically—which should just be unacceptable regardless of someone’s opinions.

You can imagine when I feel threatened, not only am I willing to say nothing, but also I’ll do what the economist Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification.” I’ll lie about what I think just so that you believe that I’m with you. That’s the worst form.

Cato Institute did its initial research showing that two-thirds of Americans self-silence. Populace replicated that finding and found almost the exact same numbers. But we pushed even further to understand why people felt like they couldn’t be honest about what they thought.

What was fascinating is that cancel culture—the thought that you might be cancelled—was not nearly the most dominant reason. The overwhelming reason that people were self-silencing was out of decency—they didn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings.

There’s an illusion here, too, and the reality is the overwhelming supermajority of Americans across all demographics privately report that they are not sensitive. They want to be open. They want to hear differing views. However, they are absolutely convinced that most Americans are way too sensitive, so you can see the problem. If I think that you’re super sensitive, and I like you, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, then maybe I just say nothing, right?

I think that might be good news, though, because while cancel culture is awful and we shouldn’t tolerate it, it’s not really the biggest driver of collective illusions—it’s our mistaken sensitivity with each other and wanting to be decent people.

How do we break the spell of collective illusions?

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There is a way out of these illusions, which are darkening the doorstep of our country. Collective illusions sow division, manufacture polarization, and give us the sense that the rest of the country does not share our values, which we know empirically is not true. They foment distrust because shared values are the moral foundation of all trust, so if I think you don’t share my values, I’m unlikely to trust you. This is a problem for a free society.

What do we do about it? This may sound straightforward, if not a little difficult, but it takes three things.

One, at an individual level, we have to find the moral courage to be honest with each other about what we think. With self-silencing, a lot of us believe maybe we’re only hurting ourselves: “Maybe I’m not getting what I want, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.” But if you understand the phenomenon of collective illusions, then you realize that this silence is incredibly damaging to the very group that you care about the most.

At the other end, we’ve got to find the civic courage to make it safe for other people to do the same thing. We’ve lost a bit of that right now in our country—this commitment to free expression. There’s almost a lack of humility and a sense that, “I could never be wrong, so I don’t need to tolerate that you disagree with me.” But it’s just not true. We’re giving up some of the core liberal values that have animated our country, even if imperfectly, since its inception, and it’s not okay.

Third, there’s a middle place with respect to organizations that I think is really important: One of the things in our research that I found interesting is that everyday people know that they feel social pressure and are self-silencing. But they are convinced that leaders, powerful people in general, and the wealthy are not under those same social pressures. We know from our own data that, in fact, they are.

CEOs admit to self-silencing because they’re worried about misrepresenting and getting out of step with the people they’re supposed to lead. But here’s the problem: organizational leaders have such an outsize influence. You are just as likely to be under an illusion about what the people that work for you think and believe, so without challenging that, you are likely to behave in ways that double down on the illusion itself.

There is a critical role for organizational leaders to commit to conditions that enable people to be honest about what they think at work.

What can individuals do to break the spell of collective illusions?

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We end up copying other people very quickly because we think, “This many people can’t be wrong,” or “This expert knows more than I do.” And sometimes that’s true—it’s not to say that other people aren’t smarter than you, sometimes, but we blindly copy.

The easiest way out of that blind copying is that before you follow the other person, ask them why it is that they believe what they believe or made the choice they made. You’ll find out very quickly if you’re under a cascade—where it’s not that everyone made this decision, but rather that we’re all copying one person. If the person can’t give you a reason, then you know darn well that this is just an illusion.

One of the things with self-silencing is that we’re so afraid that the group will be upset: “I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to get ostracized.” It turns out that there’s a very easy shortcut here that will give you a sense of whether something’s an illusion or if this is really what the group wants. And that is the idea of injecting some uncertainty.

Let’s say it’s a political conversation about two candidates, which in the last several years has been a polarizing topic. People feel like, “Well, if I say what I’m thinking right now, the group will get mad, and they might ostracize me.” But we know from research that groups never punish individuals who haven’t made up their mind. If you just say, “You know what? I’m not so sure. On the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that,” and other people start to mimic that, then you know this is an illusion—and you’ve given them an escape hatch.

What’s the one big idea readers should take away from the book?

It is very easy to slip into blind conformity in ways that create collective illusions. It’s not for lack of a spine. It’s just part of who we are as human beings. We are social creatures. We are wired together in ways that matter. At this point in our society’s history, with the technologies we have and the challenges we’re facing, this rampant misunderstanding may be the biggest invisible threat to a free society.

It is very easy to slip into blind conformity in ways that create collective illusions. It’s not for lack of a spine. It’s just part of who we are as human beings. We are social creatures. We are wired together in ways that matter. At this point in our society’s history, with the technologies we have and the challenges we’re facing, this rampant misunderstanding may be the biggest invisible threat to a free society.

We’ve got problems. But if you realize that much of what feels like true division and hyperpolarization is actually rooted in a lie, if you recognize collective illusions for what they are, you get a different way forward.

It’s not fighting with each other. It’s getting back to this commitment that we’ve had and never lived up to fully: that even when we disagree, we don’t need to be disagreeable, that sometimes even though I think I’m right about everything, it’s probably not true. The only way I would lose that error and find the truth is by being exposed to different views. If we can reclaim that, I think you’ll be shocked at how fast we can get out of this cultural spiral and the kind of progress we can make together.

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Todd Rose on why we shouldn’t all just get along

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