The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions

By Todd Rose Book Reviews

Image of Collective IllusionsIn Collective Illusions, Todd Rose points to folk stories, historical events, scientific studies, and examples in social media to support his theme: We as individuals and as a society unknowingly or unconsciously participate in perpetuating false beliefs and narratives. The ramifications of such are a serious disservice to us individually and as a society. This is increasingly so in today’s environment where social media creates and disperses these collective illusions at lightning speed and with a worldwide reach.

It is not surprising that the catalyst for this phenomenon is our inherent need to belong, feel accepted, or be part of the group — even if at the expense of our personal beliefs and values. The book easily establishes this long-standing human trait, including through historical events and scientific studies. However, the book is striking in showing the continuing forcefulness of our desire to conform and our susceptibility to be manipulated as a result.

A poignant part of the book is that we can come to believe a minority view is actually a majority view. As one example given, 97% of people believe that a successful life means following interests and talents to become the best person they can at what they care most about. However, 92% of people believe that others consider a successful life as being rich, having a high-profile career, or being well-known. Such a mismatch between reality and perception regarding what others believe can and does have significant impact on our decisionmaking.

It is precisely here that social media can be so dangerous in leading us astray. A compelling illustration in the book is the use of bots (programs to emulate human activity over the internet) to make it appear a purported position on a social platform is widely accepted. This inflated strength in numbers (albeit manufactured) creates encouragement for people to go along with the position or, at least, not to speak out against it for fear of being ostracized by the group. The result can be a position that is supported by a very few ultimately becomes perceived and treated as a majority one — even though the majority in fact disagrees.

The author provides a clear-eyed diagnosis for what collectively afflicts us in this age of social media and goes further in offering some solutions. Those who are interested in the impact of social media will find this book a serious and well-sourced discussion on the topic.

Hank Jackson is a member of The Florida Bar.