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April 25, 2024, Pedro Trillo

Unmounting Myths: The Truth Behind Collective Illusions.

Who raises his hand if he doesn’t have a bias? Nobody, right? We all, in some way or another, have biases: we live in society, we consume information, we develop and grow within a cultural context, and the truth is that our minds are more intertwined with society than we imagine or dare to recognize.

Most of us would choose to align ourselves completely with the social norms of our respective groups rather than be faithful to our true essence. As social animals, we desire to fit into the group beyond transcending individually.

Todd Rose, a reputable psychologist and neuroscientist, has devoted half his life to the rigorous and documented study of the trap between collective and individual thinking. He has dubbed these “Collective Illusions”—situations where the majority adopts an opinion they do not share, mistakenly believing it to be the majority opinion.

Rose reveals how today’s cultural and technological conditions not only give life to these illusions but also influence our expectations and the very fabric of social institutions.

In this unsteady world of information and instant opinion, we’re all trapped in a whirlwind of “collective illusions.” These beliefs, often wrong, are spread without questioning as if they were the unanimous voice of society.

Between the official narratives, driven by business models based on pay-for-advertising, and the dark corners of conspiracy theories that emerged with the pandemic, there is a point of balance where the truth is hidden. As a good explorer, I am committed to looking for her.

What is at stake? If we rely on false assumptions, it can affect our happiness as an individual. At the level of society, there is distrust and polarization between us, and above all, it will affect you in decision-making, from the smallest in your day-to-day to the most existential in your life.

What’s behind these illusions? How do they affect our decisions and perceptions? In this article, I quote and summarize Todd Rose’s work, referring to the eight great social myths or collective illusions through private opinion methods. This psychologist thoroughly documented this work relating to American society.

Myth 1: You can’t trust others.

Psychologist Todd Rose challenges the myth that people are unreliable, citing a German study that found that most people act honestly. This finding suggests that institutions should trust people more, which could lead to greater efficiency and collaboration in society. By recognizing people’s inherent reliability, interpersonal relationships can be strengthened, and a more cooperative environment can be fostered, as mutual trust is essential for the healthy functioning of any society.

When institutions trust people and vice versa, a virtuous circle promotes cooperation, creativity, and progress. Moreover, recognizing that most people are trustworthy can overcome prejudices and stereotypes that often prevent us from seeing reality. Ultimately, trust is a valuable resource we must cultivate and protect to build a more solid society.

Myth 2: Wealth and power are the keys to success.

We believe that wealth and status are the highest priority for the majority, but studies say otherwise. Personal accomplishment is much more critical, primarily according to the responses in private and anonymous surveys that Todd Rose conducted to thousands of individuals who value being accomplished as a person more than generating wealth and a career for social status.

Teenagers pursue fame because of this collective illusion or widespread belief, somehow influenced by the effect of social media, even if it is not what they value internally. Many aspire to be movie stars, footballers, influencers, or gamers, believing that that will make them successful. Ultimately, personal satisfaction and purpose are more valuable than fame or money.

So, recognizing that success is subjective and focusing on meaningful personal goals can be a good recipe. In my personal experience, as I have already mentioned in an article, everything changed for me the day I understood that success did not come from recognition from the outside but from within; it started with the individual.

Myth 3: Social media reflects what society thinks.

There is a false belief that the majority shares opinions we do not share. This affects our expectations and decisions. For example, social media can amplify the voices of a minority, creating a false perception of consensus. Collective illusions are formed when the vocal minority is perceived as the majority.

When a small group of activists or an influencer launches a campaign, everyone may agree with their cause, although most people have not discussed it. The fact that there is a viral on social networks, supported by many likes and spectacular dissemination, does not mean that what is explained there is true or is backed by the majority.

According to the psychologist, the way to escape this trap is to encourage conversations outside the online world to understand individuals’ honest opinions and avoid following fictitious illusions that spread on social networks.

Myth 4: Group consensus is proven and is a fact.

The myth of group consensus argues that when a group reaches an agreement, that agreement is necessarily valid and correct. However, history shows us that this is not always true. Groups, even those composed of intelligent, well-intentioned people, can make significant mistakes when making joint decisions.

These errors can arise from social pressure, compliance, or lack of complete information. Collective illusions also play an essential role in this process. When a group mistakenly believes everyone shares their opinion, they can perpetuate false or inaccurate beliefs.

Therefore, it is crucial to question group consensus and carefully consider decisions made together to avoid the trap of collective thinking and ensure that conclusions are substantiated and based on solid evidence.

Myth 5: Elite jobs are important to us.

The myth that elite jobs are essential to us is based on the belief that prestigious and high-status occupations are fundamental to personal success and fulfillment. However, the reality is more complex, and the data show a different perception. We believe that prestige or status is what everyone is looking for in a job, but in reality, people mainly value the autonomy and meaning of their work.

Younger generations are reassessing work priorities, valuing the search for meaning and purpose in work over merely accumulating wealth or status. Moreover, collective delusions can distort our perception of what is essential.

To summarize, elite jobs are unimportant for everyone or the majority of the collective. According to the studies, the real importance lies in finding a job that brings personal satisfaction, has a purpose, and contributes to the well-being of society; this is what most people think.

Myth 6: The majority approves division.

There is a belief that the majority is in favor of segregation, division, or political polarization, and reality, this is not the case. This collective illusion can perpetuate discriminatory practices and maintain irreconcilable social divisions.

Looking back on history, in the 1960s in the south of the United States, racial segregation was a painful reality. By then, however, the majority of white people no longer approved of this practice, it provoked rejection. Despite that, they mistakenly believed that, in the majority, the “other” still favored segregation.

This collective illusion prolonged discrimination and hindered progress toward racial equality. Only when these collective perceptions were challenged was significant progress made in the struggle for the country’s civil rights.

We must then challenge these misconceptions to promote integration. It is crucial to recognize that the vast majority seeks equality and peaceful coexistence, in which you can express your opinion and reach agreements outside a climate of fictitious crispation or provoked by some interest that is not shared.

Myth 7: People want university degrees.

The myth that people long for university degrees is rooted in the belief that getting a diploma is the key to professional and personal success. However, the reality is different. The world is evolving in such a way that obtaining a degree guarantees absolutely nothing.

New generations are increasingly appreciating the relevance and usefulness of their higher education. It is not just about obtaining a degree but about acquiring practical skills that will enable them to face the challenges of the world of work, and the vast majority are in this fabric.

People are looking for training that provides employment opportunities and financial stability, more than just a role. In addition, borrowing associated with higher education is a growing concern. Many question whether the cost of a university degree is worth it, especially when student debt can be overwhelming in countries like the United States.

People, therefore, look for options to minimize the financial burden while obtaining quality education. The trend is towards a more personalized and flexible education tailored to individual skills, interests, and goals. The desire for university degrees is evolving, and the fundamental importance lies in finding a balance between academic training and the specific needs of the individual developing in society.

Myth 8: Cultural norms are immutable.

We believe that cultural norms cannot change, but sometimes, they can be adapted. This collective illusion can limit evolution and inclusion. For example, in Vietnam, child malnutrition was tackled using the approach of what they called “positive deviations.” They found that some families supplemented their children’s diet with shrimp despite skipping a cultural norm that considered them harmful to children. By challenging this norm, they significantly improved children’s health and changed perceptions of food throughout society.

Then, these positive deviations must be identified and rooted norms challenged. Recognize that cultures evolve and that traditions can be changed. When I was a kid, I ran a bicycle. One of the rules was that you could not put the big plate and the small pineapple until the end of February or early March, depending on the training schedule and what the older cyclists told us. Thirty years later, it is more than proven that cycling training is based on professional power series, and you can put the large plate with a small one any month throughout the year… I pulled myself three years following that standard.

Conclusion

In this closing article, I want to encourage the reader to reflect on the collective illusions surrounding us. Indeed, while reading it, you have come to mind many examples of myths or collective illusions that happen to you daily. Often, these false beliefs are rooted in our society subtly and powerfully. However, questioning them and seeking the truth can build a more informed, fair, and compassionate world.

The next time we face an illusion, let us remember that reality is more complex and hopeful than it seems at first sight.

CEO at Vizologi | Website

Pedro Trillo is a tech entrepreneur, telecommunications engineer, founder of the startup Vizologi, specialist in Generative Artificial Intelligence and business strategy, technologist, and author of several essays on technology.

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