Collective Illusions Book Summary - Collective Illusions Book explained in key points
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Collective Illusions summary

Todd Rose

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

4.5 (62 ratings)
16 mins
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    Collective Illusions
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    You can’t always trust your brain.

    You might know this story. It’s about an emperor and two con men posing as weavers. The men convince the emperor they’ve created the most magnificent clothes that only the elite can see. The clothes are invisible to people who are dumb or ignorant. So the emperor wears his “invisible” clothes out into the public square, parading naked before his subjects, all of whom are silently questioning what they’re seeing. Am I too stupid or low-class to see the clothes? Is it possible the emperor isn’t actually wearing anything? Just then, a young boy jumps out and says, “Hey! He’s naked!” And just like that, the illusion crumbles, and one by one, the emperor’s people feel free to admit what they’ve known all along.

    If you’d been one of the people in the crowd, you’d have fallen victim to a collective illusion. It started when a person perceived to know more than you told a lie and you believed them – that’s called prestige bias. It continued when you remained silent in spite of your own qualms, giving confirmation to those around you that the emperor was indeed wearing clothes. And it ended when someone bravely spoke the truth.

    This isn’t the only way collective illusions form but it’s the perfect example. It’s also lighthearted and fictional.

    So here’s a real-life example. In the United States, 5,000 people die each year waiting for a kidney transplant. Over 3,500 kidneys are thrown away each year, and it’s estimated that 50 percent of those are healthy transplantable kidneys.

    Why would we throw away perfectly healthy kidneys? When patients are offered a kidney, they have the option to reject it. The first person may have a valid reason for rejecting a kidney that has nothing to do with the quality of the organ. The second person may or may not know why the first person rejected it.

    But any rejection after that is because the longer a kidney is on the waitlist, the lower its perceived value. In short, the primary reason for rejecting the kidney is this: it’s been rejected so many times before there must be something wrong with it.

    This copycat reasoning is just one form of conformity trap. It’s your brain’s way of filling in information gaps with logical, if sometimes harmful, assumptions. If others rejected it, in the absence of any other knowledge, you assume it’s bad.

    In this scenario, you don’t trust your own personal judgment over that of the group. There are some sound survival reasons for this brain adaptation – think about what you’d do if you were playing in the ocean and all of the tourists suddenly started running out of the water. It would probably be a good idea for you to run as well.

    However, this behavior can also lead to you missing out on a perfectly healthy kidney transplant, standing in a line that leads to nowhere, pretending to like a movie you hated, or otherwise perpetrating a collective illusion.

    And as with the kidney example, these illusions can be extremely destructive. Now, let’s talk about how we help create and perpetuate collective illusions.

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    What is Collective Illusions about?

    Collective Illusions (2022) explores the idea of conformity bias: how it shapes our decisions for better or worse, and how we can overcome this behavior and even use it for good.

    Who should read Collective Illusions?

    • Amateur brain scientists
    • People who want to be the change
    • Dissenters and activists

    About the Author

    Todd Rose is a former Harvard professor, best-selling author, and founder of Populace, a bipartisan think tank that studies individuality and seeks to create a world where everyone can thrive.

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