This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Todd Rose, the CEO of Populace, a U.S.-based research think tank, about his best-selling book, Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Todd Rose, a best-selling author, scholar, and think tank founder who combines his scientific training with sociological insights to grapple with many of the big questions facing modern society. His latest book is a case in point. Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions, explores how our desire to fit in can create misunderstandings and lead entire groups down paths they never wanted to go in the first place.
I’m grateful to speak with him about the sources of these collective illusions, their consequences, and what we can do to see things more clearly. Todd, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.
TODD ROSE: Thank you, Sean, it’s great to be with you.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a question about your personal bio if that’s okay. Your path to becoming a Harvard professor isn’t a conventional one. How did you go from being a high school dropout to teaching at one of the world’s most prestigious universities and perhaps more importantly, how has that experience shaped your insights reflected in the book?
TODD ROSE: The short version of it was I grew up in rural America, which had a lot going for it, but grew up in a place that prized conformity above almost everything else. That was not going to work with my personality. I had a really hard time in school. When you do poorly one year, it tends to snowball and it culminated in me failing out of high school early in my senior year with a 0.9 GPA. Shortly thereafter, my girlfriend found out she was pregnant. We’re still married today, just over our 29th anniversary.
SEAN SPEER: Congratulations.
TODD ROSE: Thank you. I ended up on welfare within a couple of years, we had two kids. I was bouncing around a bunch of minimum-wage jobs. Luckily, mainly because I didn’t want to ruin my young children’s lives, I had to do something else and decided to get my GED. I didn’t really know where I wanted to end up, I just knew where I was it wasn’t working. I ended up enrolling in night school at a local university, Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and it was there that I found myself—maybe we can talk about that—learning who I really was, that I actually was decent at learning, and came to appreciate through a series of experiences, my own individuality and how much it mattered that I found a good fit between that and the environment that I was in.
When I got that right, I seemed to be as good as anybody else in just about anything. When I didn’t, I struggled. That experience really was formative for me in the sense that not only did it propel me, I ended up graduating with a 3.97 GPA and got into Harvard for my doctorate. I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time but it ended up shaping how I thought about myself, but also about other people, human potential, all this stuff that would go on to define most of my scientific work.
SEAN SPEER: To that point, a central idea in the book is that we have a private and public self. The notion may be somewhat intuitive to people. We’ve all been nice to someone and then complained about them behind their back, but you’re making a far deeper point here. How should we think about the differences between our private and public selves and why did these differences matter so much in your story?
TODD ROSE: Look, what’s really important here is, in an ideal world, most of the psychological research I’m familiar with suggests that it’s really important that we strive to have our public and private selves be as close as possible. This idea of congruence, which a lot of the positive psychologists would suggest is a critically necessary step toward flourishing and self-actualization. If that’s the case, it begs the question of why are they so different and what drives those differences? For me being trained in neuroscience, it was pretty obvious that we are a hyper-social species. Humans have evolved not to be lone wolves. Our brains are super sensitive to social learning.
We prefer to be with our groups, not against our groups. We have that conformity bias. The problem is that you end up having a private self that has your own preferences and aspirations but you’re keenly aware, or at least you think you are, of what the groups that you care the most about believe, think, and aspire to. There’s that tug of war between who I might be in private or who I think I am and who I believe I’m supposed to be as I show up in the roles I play in the groups I belong to.
SEAN SPEER: A related point to this conversation thus far is our tendency to want to copy those around us. Where does that come from, Todd? How much of it is a sociological instinct versus a neurological or even evolutionary one?
TODD ROSE: It’s funny because I’m someone who would like to think that I don’t conform which is just not true. As human beings, we are hardwired to have a conformity bias. It just sounds bad but in fact most of the time it’s spectacularly good. We’ve evolved—you think about it like, part of this is just social learning. I can either learn everything the hard way through trial and error or I can watch you and be like “Wow, that was really dumb or that was smart. Maybe I’ll just copy that.”
This almost silly and obvious example is if I’m in some other country and I’m hungry and I’m lost in the wilderness and the people I’m with are like “Don’t eat those red berries, they’re poisonous,” just because red berries aren’t poisonous where I’m from, it’s still probably smart to go and say, “These people must know more than I do.”
You can internalize that knowledge. The conformity bias we have as a species has allowed us to learn from each other. It’s what gives us culture, allows us to transmit knowledge from generation to generation.
Arguably this is the reason human beings dominate the planet as a species. That’s the good part that we care that much and it buys us a lot. From a survival standpoint, it is way better to be part of a group than all by yourself. Here’s the problem and then we’ll get to this idea of a collective illusion. Obviously, blind conformity was never good. Just group think. Lots of books have been written about this and its problem. Collective illusions are a special case here which used to be rare and they’re now quite common where you’re conforming to the group but it turns out you’re just wrong about the group to begin with.
It’s funny because the reason from a neurological standpoint that this happens is despite your bias to conformity—you’d imagine given how much conformity is important that we’d be really good at reading group consensus. It turns out your brain uses a shortcut and your brain assumes the loudest voices repeated the most are the majority. You could imagine that in the days when we were like in groups of 100 or something that probably worked pretty well.
It must have or we wouldn’t have evolved for that. Now you take that shortcut of group estimation into an age of social media where the democratizing tendency of social media is its upside. The fact that it empowers everybody with a voice can also be the problem. Here’s an example. If you just take Twitter alone, so 80 percent of all content on Twitter is generated by only 10 percent of the users. In the States at least from the research I’ve seen, those 10 percent are not remotely representative of the broader population.
They tend to be more extreme on almost every social issue. You can see the problem then if only 10 percent of people believe something get ahold of you but you think it’s 80 percent, then your brain’s like “That’s the majority.” Unless I’m willing to go against what I think the majority is then I’m going to just either self-silence or say “I’m going to actually outright lie and just go along with what everybody’s saying.”
Then the truth is then what happens is, the only voice that anyone hears from is the fringe. The result is collective illusion. Just for the audience, just to put a formal definition on it, when you get to this place of a collective illusion is this phenomenon where most people in the group privately disagree with some idea or choice, but they end up going along with it because they incorrectly think that most people in the group agree with it. Whole groups end up doing something that almost nobody wanted.
I’ll end this part by saying that phenomenon, we’ve known about collective illusions in research for about 100 years. If you go back to the parables of the emperor has no clothes and stuff, we’ve at least known about it for quite a while. It wasn’t until this age of social media where it just exploded. They used to be so rare that they were just academic phenomena. Now they’re just everywhere. It’s become, I think, the single biggest invisible threat to democracies, frankly.
SEAN SPEER: There’s just so much there to unpack. Let’s take up your observations about the rise of collective illusions and how they’re influencing us individually and collectively. How do they typically take root and how do they come to influence our public and private selves?
TODD ROSE: They take root if we start back to what I was talking about just before, which is, you’d like to think that it requires a bad actor, or somebody manipulating us, but while that can be true, most of the time it’s just that product of our individual desire to conform, and our somewhat flawed shortcut for estimating group consensus. When that biology interacts with this particular technology, it’s very easy, without any bad actor or nefarious intent, for a very vocal fringe to end up being perceived as representing a bigger consensus than they do. Then because we have varying degrees of desire to conform, you might say, “I don’t care. Who else thinks that I’m not going along?”
I might say, look, if it’s the majority, I’m going to go with it. Some other people are like, “Listen, if there’s just a squeaky wheel or a loud fringe, I don’t want to put up with this social threat.” We just ended up cascading pretty quickly to where everyone’s going along with it and it does really feel like this is what we all believe. It’s not terribly surprising that in an age of social media, these things are everywhere now where they weren’t in the past because in the past when they would emerge, they basically constrained by geography, if you will.
You didn’t have the technology that transcended place and time. Now we do, and so they’re just so much easier. Someone in their parents’ basement on Instagram can actually have the chance to initiate these kinds of illusions and here we are.
SEAN SPEER: If I can ask a follow-up question, Todd, one of your previous books is called The End of Average. I was thinking about that as I read the current one—how much will the ability for people to discern these collective illusions be a major advantage in the marketplace of ideas, the job market and so on?
TODD ROSE: Well, look, I think it’s critical and I think there are two really important things about understanding this phenomenon and being able to deal with it. One at the individual level, the other societal level. At a societal level, my think tank Populace has more private opinion data, on the American public, at least than probably anybody else. We feel really confident we understand where people are on a whole range of issues and we know where these collective illusions are, or at least the ones we’ve looked at. The biggest societal consequence of collective illusions is false polarization. It’s pretty crazy.
Whether you’re in the States or you’re looking at this, you think like the thing is we are so irreparably divided that you can’t function, which is actually practically true right now. When you look under the hood of it, it’s pretty shocking. In the U.S., we’re divided on some things deeply, like immigration is something that the U.S. is very privately divided on. It pales in comparison to the number of places where when you get under the hood and look at private opinion, there’s a ridiculous amount of consensus.
It’s because we are listening to the fringes, we don’t believe that’s true and the problem is there’s an old sociological phenomenon called the Thomas theorem, which basically means, if people believe something to be true, it’s true in its consequences. [chuckles] The fact that I think we’re divided all these things, I start to see other people as the enemy, as you don’t share my values, you don’t believe what I believe, you don’t whatever, and here we are, we end up treating each other as though we are on opposite sides, when in fact, it’s not really true.
The reason that’s important from a collective standpoint is under collective illusions, we talked about this a little bit later, how you deal with that problem is very different than how you deal with it if we genuinely are divided and if you pick the wrong strategy, you can make it worse. That’s the collective side. I think it explains a heck of a lot about what’s going on in the world right now, but at the individual level, if you think about—we have some really good research on, I’ll use one concrete example of the cost to you as a person.
We did one of the biggest studies ever on what people mean by a successful life. We used I think some fun methodologies that get around social distortion, and looked at 76 possible trade-off varieties you could have for a good life. Couple things that stood out. One, the biggest collective illusion we’ve ever found in anything had to do with when we asked people what they thought, people would put as their top priority for a successful life, what other people would say, they thought that most people would say being famous was the most important thing to them. Ranked at number 1 out of 76.
In private, using methods you can’t really game, it’s actually ranked dead last, dead last. Illusions don’t get bigger than that, but from a personal standpoint, here’s the fundamental problem. We measured not only people’s trade-off priorities but how well they were doing on them and here’s what we found. We connected that to Gallup studies like life satisfaction—there’s this a really simple elegant question around a ladder, where you put yourself and 10 being my best life and 0 being the very worst. It’s actually well-used all over the world and pretty predictive of a whole bunch of things you’d care about.
We actually correlated like, okay, how well does it correlate your achievement on the things that you care about versus life satisfaction? Not surprisingly, it correlates quite strongly. The extent to which you’re achieving on your private values and priorities, in fact, a 20-point increase in that translated to the equivalent increase in life satisfaction of giving someone a 50 percent pay increase. It really does matter. Conversely, no amount of achievement on what you think other people see as success translates into higher life satisfaction at all.
Think about right now, we’re all trying to live these lives and we think we know what we care about, but we also feel this tug to be something we’re not or saying things we don’t really believe, it’s destroying your congruence, which actually has all kinds of consequences for you, including physiologically, but it also puts you on a path of a pretty hollow and empty life. The truth is, in our economy today and in society, in general, your best bet is to know who you are, know what you’re good at, know what you care about, and convert that into something that can be fulfilling for you and a contribution to everybody else.
If we’re all chasing the same illusions about what we should be doing and believing and saying, you get this weird place where it’s both groupthink, which is never good, but it actually was never true to begin with. You’re also destroying the very group that you care so much about. For all those reasons and even more, we have to understand that collective illusions are a phenomenon, that they affect you personally if you don’t understand them, and that they can destroy free societies if you don’t do something about them.
SEAN SPEER: Why are we so bad at discerning what people with similar values and experiences and perspectives as we have actually believe?
TODD ROSE: If you think about it, especially with values, I don’t know, I can’t read your mind. I know what I think, I know what I believe I value. I can only infer your values and priorities based on your behaviour, the choices you make. It’s funny, consistently, we have this bias where, let’s say, for example, I know that I’m going to some protests because I believe I’m supposed to, like we’re supposed to. I’m going to show up because I feel pressure if I don’t show up and do the thing, whatever it is so I go along. I know for me, I’m only doing it because I feel pressure. I don’t really believe it. I see you at the same protest, and it’s weird. You’d think I would give you the same benefit of the doubt, but it’s just not how it works. I just assume your behaviour has a one-to-one reflection of your private beliefs and values. It’s obviously not. Not always. What happens is, is I’ll see your behavior and I’m like, Sean, believes it. Obviously, I’m right that this is what most people think. I’ll keep going along.
Of course, me showing up is telling you the same thing. We’re just not very good at it. It’s funny. If you look at the history of technology, and how it influences societies, big societal changing technologies, there’s always some upside, there’s a lot of downside, and it almost always requires that we acquire a new skill or mindset to make the trade-off worth it. For example, go all the way back to going from an oral tradition to the written word.
Socrates was like, “Oh, this is terrible. It’s going to ruin memory.” If reciting Homer verbatim is losing memory, that’s probably true, it did. You can intuitively sense that writing it all down seemed like it had a huge upside. Of course, the only way that that trade-off was worth it is if you recognize there was a new artificial skill called literacy that you had to acquire. Elites hoarded that skill, arguably, to the Reformation in the West. It took an act of God, if you will, to democratize that.
As long as I didn’t have that skill, I was way better off without the technology. I was way better off in oral tradition because we could actually share that knowledge in a way I could access it. I believe that our social technologies have enormous upside, but what we didn’t fully appreciate, is that their dynamics enable the house of mirrors that warps forever our brain’s ability to accurately estimate group consensus.
Our historical and evolutionary bias toward conformity becomes this pure downside. I believe the skill we have to acquire is that recognition, that understanding that we can no longer trust our brains to tell us what our groups think. If that’s true, then we’ve entered a very interesting age now, where if all you cared about was belonging, and being part of the group, the most important thing that you could do is be honest about what you believe to the group. Your odds are, they probably agree with you. If you don’t do that, if you aren’t honest with other group members, you put at risk the entire group.
Obviously, that comes with—to make that new skill, something that we all can practice, it means doubling down on liberal values, like diverse opinions and pluralism, and a commitment to free speech that, sadly, is under a threat right now. Here we are. That’s where I think right now, most people have no idea about the phenomenon of collective illusion, and it’s why I wrote the book because it’s like, if you don’t know, why would you ever think your brain is lying to you?
SEAN SPEER: In these circumstances, as you say, Todd, there are different reactions available to us. One that you document in the book is self-silencing, which I’ll ask about in a minute. Another is something called preference falsification. What does that mean? How does it work? Do we really come to change our own views?
TODD ROSE: This is pretty frightening. It’s like faced with the idea that my private views differ from the group that matters to me, I have a few options. I can push back. I can try to argue with the group but you wouldn’t be in this situation if that was your default. You can try to hide and just say nothing. Actually in the U.S. we’ve got good research showing a majority of Americans admit that they just don’t speak up anymore because it’s like, “I don’t feel a lot of thread. I just don’t want to cause problems. I’ll just keep my head down.”
Again, just retreating to the sidelines of self silencing. You haven’t lied, but what you’ve done is left the field, if you will, the marketplace of ideas. We’re only ever hearing from the fringes. It actually amplifies their voice by default. This last one, which is the most insidious is especially when the fringe is threatening economic, social, or sometimes physical—usually not in democracies, you’re not supposed to threaten people’s lives—but if there is a sense of coercion and social pressure that I could be ostracized for having the wrong view, it’s not enough to say nothing. These fringes will want you to actually say what they want you to say and I’m not a huge fan. I think we overstate cancel culture in some ways. It’s real, but I think it’s a boogieman sometimes that we use. Here’s a case where it is in play, which is the threat of economic sanction for having the wrong view means I can’t just say nothing, right?
Especially in an era where silence is violence or whatever. Okay, look, so I can’t just say I don’t want to have an opinion right now, and I know there’s a right opinion, I have to say it. Well, the problem is and this is what economists come up with these words. They’re so smart usually, but they’re not good at naming things. Preference qualification by a brilliant person, Timur Kuran, who came up with that idea, which is, either I want the reward for being aligned with the group, or I want to avoid the sanctioning for going against the group.
I can’t say nothing. I have to say something and people will just outright lie. They will say the opposite of what they believe for those reasons. The reason this is particularly problematic is when the very people who are against the idea are publicly behind it, it becomes so entrenched, right? It’s one thing to be like, “I don’t know if I’m hearing from everyone.” But like, no, Sean’s telling me.
I would’ve thought for sure, Sean because here he is, he’s backing it. I’m like, we all must really agree with this. It gets worse than that because when you lie about your private views, you get what’s called cognitive dissonance, right? Pretty classic psychological phenomenon. You can’t live in that error state very long. Something has to give and you could either come back and say, “Okay, I was lying. Let me change my view.” Why would you do that? If you had that courage you wouldn’t have lied in the first place.
Usually what we do is we actually end up revising our belief system to bring it in line with our behavior over time, which is pretty scary. What’s even worse is that very good research documenting that when you look at people who are enforcing “You better say the right thing.” It is actually significantly more likely that those are people who don’t privately believe the thing. True believers don’t need to twist your arm, right? They just don’t. Once I’ve lied, I start to think, well, you probably know that I’m lying, this illusion of transparency. Oh no, you’re going to find me out. I end up doubling down and becoming the enforcer of it.
That’s why at this point, especially in the US, every time I see an evangelical leader who’s vocally anti-gay, I’m like, that dude’s probably gay. At this point, it’s almost a caricature of this thing. You might think, but how likely is it that we’re lying to that extent? Well folks can go to our website populaceorg. We did last year in the U.S., we used another methodology that can get around when people are lying about a view.
It’s called lists experiment. It’s very clever. We didn’t invent it. That’s why I can say it’s clever. We actually looked at 25 incredibly sensitive issues that we knew were polarizing in the country. Everything from abortion, trans rights, and those things, right? The results were just, I mean, shocking. It’s everybody, every demographic, no matter how you cut the data, is lying about multiple issues in the aggregate. They’re just lying about different issues.
You look at this and it’s like, holy cow, it’s not just that we’re on the sidelines is that we feel compelled to actually misrepresent our views to each other. No wonder we have a huge problem. Again, under preference falsification and the collective illusions that it creates and sustains, the way out of this isn’t moral persuasion, it’s social proof. We’ve got to understand the root of the problem if we’re going to actually solve it.
SEAN SPEER: Yes. I was going to ask about that. You mentioned the polling work that Populace has done on a series of hot-button issues like abortion, as you mentioned, COVID restrictions, and so on. What’s striking, as you say, Todd, is that both the Left and the Right are actually more moderate than what we tend to say publicly. That even in a country like the United States, where the notion of polarization is such a common way to think and talk about American politics, most people are converging towards a political mean.
Does this mean that a centrist politics is underrepresented in the United States, and a centrist politician could actually perform well in, say, a presidential election, or do you think our instinct to conform would actually stand in the way?
TODD ROSE: That’s the problem. It’s sort of yes to both of them, believe it or not. Not surprisingly, when people want to manipulate systems to manufacture consent, the best thing you could do is force binary choices. It’s you’re with us, you’re against us. The two-party system in the U.S. is a disaster that way, and it’s rigged the system such that there is an enormous disadvantage to trying to displace those two. Any given election feels too consequential. But it is the case that it’s pretty shocking. If I didn’t do the research, I would be super skeptical.
I will give you a concrete example. We did this study of aspirations people have for America. “What do you want the future of the country to be trade-off priorities?” Before we gave them the private opinions from it, we just asked respondents point blank, “Are we more divided or united as a country?” Not surprisingly, I think it was 82 percent said, “We’re more divided.” Half of those people said, “We are extremely divided.”
What was even worse is when you cut it by who you voted for in the previous election, this is back a couple of years ago, a majority of both sides said the other side no longer shares their values for the country. Yet, you put those same exact people into this trade-off instrument, private opinion, and it’s ridiculous. The amount of common ground, genuinely, on the most important issues was pretty astounding.
Again, they don’t think that’s true because they believe that the other side, they believe that people hold views they don’t really hold, we are seeing each other as the outgroup, as the other rather than, “Hey, we hold the same values more or less.” Like I said, there are a few things where there really are private disagreements, but they pale in comparison.
Here we are, it’s certainly the case that when you see politicians espousing more moderate positions on things that are consistent, it’s not terribly surprising that they do well.
The problem is, is that two-party system, and the primary voting structures, especially on the Right, that don’t even require you to get to a majority to win a primary and the state incentivizes a super vocal fringe who gets to end up nominating the people who it’s like, you could win in the general but you’re never getting to the primary. I will say, the proof is in the pudding here when in place after place when things are put on the ballot, and people can vote in private, it’s pretty surprising.
Whether it’s Kansas voting for, like, in terms of protecting abortion, rather than doubling down right after the Roe v. Wade overturned. It’s like, look, people privately, when they go in the voting booth, they feel like, “Listen, I know, you don’t know what I’m choosing, so I’m going to vote a certain way.” I would just say, it’s not just in the States. This is a problem across the globe. Again, the way out of it, it’s funny, under collective illusions, if you try to persuade, it actually is proof to people that the illusion is real, and you can cause a little harm.
Let me give you a concrete example of that if you don’t mind. You can shut me up anytime you want. I’m a reformed academic. [chuckles] This is brief for me. In the U.S. in the ’90s, you probably remember the “say no to drugs” campaign, that “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It’s like, “Yes. Why is it a Friday?” “I don’t know, but whatever.” That came about because the government noticed a small increase in first-time drug use amongst teenagers in the U.S.
They went ahead and spent about a billion dollars on an ad campaign, got the best advertising agencies in the country, and it was pretty successful from an advertising standpoint. The typical American teen saw three ads a day for six years. The problem was that the government just assumed that the reason kids were trying drugs is cause they were interested in drugs, but there was private opinion data from the beginning that showed that wasn’t true. That in fact they were skeptical about drugs, what they wanted was to fit in. They were under the illusion that most teens were doing drugs. Okay? Under that illusion, you blitz them with a billion dollars of ads trying to scare them straight.
What they took from the ads were, “This must be what we’re doing, or else, why would adults try so hard to get us to stop?” There’s no kidding, as a result, it led to an increase in first-time drug use directly attributed to the campaign itself. Persuasion doesn’t work when it’s an illusion. What does work is what’s called social proof. There’s a handful of things we could talk about, but the point is it’s really critical. It’s about revealing our shared values, not trying to convince someone. If you get that right, history suggests you can unleash some pretty remarkable social change that otherwise seems unimaginable.
SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to some of your solutions before we wrap up, but I just want to stay on the subject of politics and policymaking. We’ve had in both of our countries in recent years, some spectacular failures on the part of the polling industry in terms of just getting things wrong. In a world in which there’s a growing gap between our private and public selves, how can policymakers devise public policy to reflect the kind of interests and needs and aspirations of their citizens?
TODD ROSE: This is a huge problem, right? I will say in fairness to my friends in the polling business, it’s hard work. It’s funny, the failures of these polls to predict the outcomes like they’re supposed to. On the one hand, there’s a whole problem with sampling and who picks up phones? Let’s set that aside and say, look, they’re working really hard and their methodologies can solve some of that. It’s good work.
The problem is if people aren’t telling the truth, then it doesn’t matter how good your methodology is there. It doesn’t matter how good you’re sampling is. It’s they’re not telling the truth. In the short term, you actually have to, if you know there’s social pressure attached to an issue—and we developed a new metric we’re coming out with this year that will consistently measure the amount of social pressure in a society because we just don’t know any other way around it, sort of helping everyone know, listen, social pressure has gone up this much. We should be careful and we shouldn’t trust what we’re seeing in polls.
People probably are misrepresenting their views. You got to rely on some of these other methodologies. We have about half a dozen that we like in particular, but there are other ones too, particularly when you’re a politician and you’re trying to do right by your constituents. It’s funny, looking back on it, we’re probably the most famous now for this private opinion work. We didn’t mean to, this isn’t why we exist. The world we want to live in requires us understanding what people really think. We did this reluctantly, but we got sucked into it. We’re rabidly political independent.
I guess at this point we’re orphans, politically, but we’ve ended up engaging across the political spectrum, including to the current White House. We are saying, “Look, here’s where your people really are. Do with it what you want.” We have some, I think, moral responsibility to at least share that information. In the short term, you’re going to have to rely on some of these other methods. What’s funny is, if I’m a vocal fringe, that’s the last thing I want. The last thing I want. This is pretty good right now that I can influence so many things when I know damn well my views aren’t really representative.
The final thing that at the end of the day, there’s really no getting out of this problem. It’s a cultural problem, especially in free societies. Look, no one’s going to lock you up for your view. It’s just the social reprimand that you’re so afraid of but we can solve for that if we actually commit to the very values of a free society. We have never been perfect at them, but our democracies have been anchored in these fundamental values of respect for differing opinions and the commitment to free speech.
If you do that, and you create the norms that say, “Look, if all you want to do is conform, conforming is actually being honest about your views, conforming is protecting the rights of someone you disagree with to speak up.” That’s the work we have to do and that’s the work at Populace we care a lot about, because the methodologies I’m glad we have them, but they are a band-aid. They are not a solution to the problem.
SEAN SPEER: One final question, and then I promise we will get to those solutions. I mentioned self-silencing earlier and you mentioned in the book and your accompanying commentary that there is a relationship between these collective illusions and the rise of so-called cancel culture. Do you want to just elaborate on that point and what you think the consequences are of a culture of self-silencing?
TODD ROSE: Yes, but first of all, in terms of the consequence, free societies don’t work, they just don’t work, when we can’t be honest with each other. I mean, look, the whole point of a democracy is to have constructive disagreement. If we all thought the same, you wouldn’t need a democracy. It’s supposed to adjudicate differences and things like that. The thing is about cancel culture, and again, I think it’s overblown, but it is real.
I’m not going to blame everything on it but the idea of the threat of social and economic sanction for holding a wrong opinion—which is just kind of outrageous, like really outrageous that it’s sort of like, you should lose your livelihood because you disagree with me—the thing that’s problematic about that is it will kick start the preference falsification, right? It’s not enough for me to say nothing. I have to say what you want me to say. I have to perform whatever you want me to perform, and then the problem is that starts to accelerate really quickly, a perception that more people hold this view.
Then everyone that’s like, I’m just not going to say anything then if I get away that well, you go quiet and now all we’re hearing from are the people who are the vocal fringe, and the people who are lying about their views and then those solidify these illusions in ways that are very hard to uproot. They go hand in hand that way and to me, it’s like once you realize that someone can be not even a good person, someone could have really wrong views, but number one, you’ve never converted someone by silencing them ever.
It always blows up in your face eventually. But second, the incredible societal consequences in terms of our inability to get anything done to cooperate, it’s so disastrous. We should see it for what it is. It is unacceptable that we allow any economic or social coercion in terms of people’s ability to be honest about their private views. It just that nobody wins there, except for a very, very vocal fringe.
SEAN SPEER: The book’s final chapter outlines how you think we can break free from collective illusions, do you want to unpack your thinking about a path to closing the gap between our private and public selves?
TODD ROSE: Yes, and we’ve touched on that a little, and it’ll sound almost simplistic, because it is simple, but it’s really important, which is once you recognize that these illusions are not being done to us necessarily, right? We the people are the ones that are self-silencing, or falsifying our preferences. Only we the people can actually do something about that. That’s the bad news. It’s also the good news. And in the book, I tried to show that what was called for, it’s less about some mass courage, you just have to learn to be a little congruent. Recognizing that if you can’t trust your brain to tell you about what your group thinks, it’s really in nobody’s best interest that you lie about your views to be what you think the group thinks.
Because it’s a coin toss, whether you’re right or wrong to begin with and I tried to show ways that people could be more congruent without putting themselves at risk. But I ended the book with what I think is probably, for me, the most important example of what’s possible in terms of social change. If you recognize that illusions are at the heart of most of our problems, and you take steps to both have the moral courage, to be honest about your own views, and the civic courage to make it safe for other people to do so.
For me, that’s the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Just briefly, for those that don’t know, it’s an incredible example where a people overthrew an authoritarian regime, a communistic regime, without anybody losing their life. It was happening in contemporary times when mass bloodshed in other areas that tried to do something similar. What was so special about the Velvet Revolution is who led it. It wasn’t a military leader, it wasn’t even a politician at the time. It was a poet and a playwright named Václav Havel.
What I love about it is Havel—and for listeners, if you’ve never read Power of the Powerless, which is a manifesto that Václav wrote, it’s freely available online. It will change your life. It is 80 pages. It’s as though he’s writing it right now for today. It’s shockingly contemporary. He had written a satire called The Garden Party because he was a playwright, and it just skewers communism, but he was so subtle to get it to the censors that censors, even though they’re being made fun of, and yet, it was basically the Hamilton of its time. Sold out all the time.
He said he sat there and he watched the audience night after night. They laughed at all the right parts. They laughed at things you would not find funny if you privately agreed with communism. He comes to the conclusion that the problem isn’t that people agree with this, it’s that they think everybody agrees with it, so they’re going along, and that the Soviet system had taught them the dangers of having authenticity and that it was protective of “What am I supposed to say? Say what you should say. Never, ever, ever reveal your honest opinions.”
He realizes then if that’s true, he didn’t use the word collective illusions, because that’s not what they called it back then. If these illusions are at the heart of the problem, then the solution was this authenticity, this personal responsibility. He goes about building what he calls small works. All these places where people could learn to be more congruent. They were not big political areas. It was literally like literary publications and stuff like that, where it’s just get back in the habit.
What’s so fascinating, he was roundly mocked. It was just like, “Are you kidding me? You don’t have any weapons, you don’t have a military, you don’t even have a political party, and yet you think you’re going to wrestle power away from a totalitarian regime? Come on.” It’s funny. Even Vaclav didn’t fully appreciate how fast the change could happen because there was a collective illusion. In fact, a few months before the student protests that would really unleash the revolution happened, he was interviewed in an international magazine, and he said something to the effect that he was in it for the long haul.
The revolution was important, but that we had to be patient, and that he didn’t think he would live to see the full manifestation. Only a few months later, he was the first democratically elected president of a free Czechoslovakia. Look, I say that because if a poet can overthrow communism, just think what we can do in the States or in Canada. These are free people with a culture that historically has tried to elevate diversity and pluralism and respect for each other, even not perfectly. Imagine what we can accomplish because our problems are not what we think they are.
Our problems are not that we are privately impossibly divided on everything that matters. Our problem is that we believe we are. Our problem is a collective illusion. If we can recognize that fact and realize that the way forward is not persuasion; it’s social proof. It’s creating conditions for us to reveal our shared values to each other and turn a better way forward. I actually think the future is pretty bright. We can get somewhere qualitatively better as democracies. The problem is if we don’t, history would suggest this thing ends really badly.
SEAN SPEER: Well, what a fascinating conversation about a fascinating book, Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions. Todd Rose, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
TODD ROSE: Thanks for having me.