- May 3, 2022
An illusion is something birthed when perception is misinterpreted. Of the simplest forms and one that we’ve all experienced is the optical illusion. It’s when you see things not as they are, but as they appear. For example, you know that jacket you hang on the wall, the one that from time to time looks like your soon-to-be kidnapper? Or that overfilled laundry basket in the corner of your room that sometimes looks like a person sitting, watching?
In what we’d call normal circumstances, and I know you want to argue, it is just a jacket; just a laundry basket. But sometimes, we see what we see, and our interpretation of these visual inputs triggers a reaction akin to the reaction we’d have if we were actually getting kidnapped.
What is collective illusion?
I came across a book by Todd Rose, a man that has served as both Professor and Faculty Director at Harvard University. The book’s title Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions almost tells it all. A book in which Todd Rose breaks down the science behind why societies, both past, and present, have gone along with actions/behaviours that went against their core beliefs.
According to Rose, people adopt social lies or vices that they incorrectly believe to be what the majority in the group would want. Doing so to lay low and avoid unwarranted attention. This, in the end, has many people acting against their beliefs just because of the untrue belief that that is what everyone else stands for.
We all conform
Take, for example, a scenario where the company you’re working for is looking for ways to increase its productivity. You’re personally convinced that if you had a flexible working schedule, and worked a certain number of days from home, your productivity would increase. But you also don’t want to sound opinionated or problematic. You believe your colleagues are comfortable and better off working from the office and with the same schedule.
So you brush your opinions under the rug and wait it out. After all, someone else must have a better suggestion, right? Well, the thing is, self-silencing sends a signal to everyone else that you are comfortable with things as they are. Making it worse if only a small number of people voice their ideas because then the whole group is bound to believe that that’s what everyone wants.
What causes a collective illusion?
Self-silencing is the seed that propagates Collective illusion. It happens when we silence ourselves because we undermine our independent judgment. We instead go along with what we consider appropriate and acceptable by the majority. It’s what psychologists refer to as Conformity Bias. When you’re more willing to mimic the behaviour of those around you, rather than rely on your judgment.
Studies have proven that people are more likely to engage in ethical behaviour, such as donating to charity or planting trees, if they see or hear that others are participating in the same endeavour. Similarly, people are likely to engage in vices such as overindulgence… the list is inexhaustible, to mirror what they perceive others to be doing. It is a tendency to blend in with the herd. One that stems from the desire to either avoid punishment for standing out or to seek approval.
Now you have an idea as to why at some point, it felt like the world around you was going nuts. Most especially if you’re a Kenyan on Twitter. Our brains are pretty remarkable at making us believe and hold on to figments of our imagination that pass for reality. And by the way, in case you didn’t know, 80% of content on Twitter is generated by 10% of the users. Something that proves that the loudest voices don’t necessarily speak for the majority.
Fact is, a great number of people are usually hiding behind their scepticism. Often convinced that everyone else stands for something entirely different from them. Certain problems can only be solved when we offer the ‘unpopular’ opinion. So how about we stop blending in and stand out–regardless of who we might offend.