Have you ever wondered how some people seem to get crankier the older they get? Have you ever worried that you might become one of them? Ever since we began staying in a 55 or older community, I have noticed that a few people seem downright cranky at their age. Luckily, the vast majority are friendly and kind but there are still a few that you quickly know to avoid. How does that happen? Were they always that way? While I suppose some circumstances could lead to a person becoming justifiably cranky and disagreeable (like pain or loss) I think we likely have more choice in the matter than we know. Plus, lately I’ve come across some new insights that would likely contribute to the mindset—those come from what is called “collective illusions.”
What are collective illusions and how can they make us cranky? A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a podcast interview of a man named Todd Rose. Rose is an author, former Harvard professor, and now the co-founder and CEO of a Boston-based think-tank that, “aims to ensure that that all people have the opportunity to pursue fulfilling lives in a thriving society.” After listening to at least half a dozen other interviews of the man I came to the realization that collective illusions can make us cranky by making us more fearful, mistrusting and suspicious of each other–and everything and everyone around us.
How? While the work of Rose doesn’t touch on this idea specifically, his extensive research shows that most of the time we humans aren’t very good at guessing what other people really think. Instead, our minds take the easy route and just assume we know what our friends, neighbors, city leaders and our governments are thinking and planning without having a real clue about whether or not it’s true. With all those assumptions we often jump to the most negative beliefs possible.
For example, if you watch one particular news channel, can you be really sure they are telling you the whole and complete truth especially if the news appears outrageous? Or what about what you see and read on social media? Or what if you just talked to your neighbor on the way to the mailbox and they told you something shocking they had just read? Did you check their sources? If you like your neighbor probably not. If you dislike your neighbor, then you are convinced they are delusional to begin with. In fact, chances are you are both sharing collective illusions. Rose says that only about 50% of what we think others think is true. Without critically thinking something through, and checking sources diligently, we are guilty of illusions—and when it is a bunch of us believing something that isn’t true it’s a “collective” illusion.
Why are we so easily sucked into believing things that aren’t true? There are a couple of reasons. I’ll confess to the first one and that is it is a lot of work to do all your own research. For the most part we are a bit lazy and prefer to take the word of others we think know more than us. (i.e. our parents, teachers, doctors, leaders, etc.) But do they? In some cases, they are just guessing what they think we want to hear and are repeating things they’ve heard from others.
The second reason is what Rose calls the copy-cat problem. We like to be accepted and liked by those we admire. We want to belong. If I think I am similar to you and that you have credibility in my eyes, (AND I want you to like me), I will likely take your word for something you say. Plus, none of us wants to be thrown out of our groups. The more you need your family or your group, the more you will agree to whatever they say or at least what you think they believe. Ever wonder why some cults can get members to do bizarre things and believe all kinds of odd ideas? When deeply immersed in a cult people will often do anything asked of them rather than risk expulsion.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you always agree with everything your “group” says or does, but rather than speak up and share what you really believe you “self-silence.” (Rose says two-thirds of us now admit to staying quiet rather than say what we believe.) The history of our country and our world is full of examples where people just went along with what others said and did, even when they didn’t agree. (Think of the German population during Hitler or those that allowed slavery or discrimination to exist as long as it has.) The tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a perfect example.
And finally, the reason we accept collective illusions is often our own confirmation bias. If we learned something previously that made sense, chances are you NEVER want to change your mind. We like to be right. We like to think we know what we know so once we’ve decided on something (no matter how untrue) we really, really don’t want to give it up and admit we were wrong.
While the work of Todd Rose and his think tank Populace.org is fascinating and worthy of deep study, his focus is not on how it can lead to making us cranky. He is mainly concerned about how the number and severity of collective illusions are contributing to the great division currently perceived in our country. Through his research he is convinced that as a population we are not as divided as we believe. However, if we continue to believe otherwise, we could actually bring about the “civil war” that people are predicting. To the contrary, his data and study has uncovered that for the most part the majority Americans—regardless of their political persuasion—believe many of the same things and hold most of the same values. Things like access to good healthcare, safety for our families and equal opportunities are common desires. However, the majority don’t think we want the same things. In fact, rather than think either side holds many similar beliefs, we are being conditioned to believe the other perspective is not just wrong on most counts—but evil. And according to Rose, that collective illusion is happening on both sides.
Of course, while he does poll and research certain political beliefs, a lot of his work is about values and what we consider to be most important to us as people. For example, he says that in our country right now a majority of people hold the belief that other people think fame and wealth are what everyone wants the most. However, when asked to pick the most important values that people held privately, fame was at the bottom of the list as number 76 out of 76! Likewise, the common belief is that lots of money and prestige are extremely important. Certainly, if you watch television or Instagram, it appears that everyone believes that fame and money and prestige are the most valued. Yet Rose shows that at the top of people’s private values are actually things like good relationships and meaningful work. Our private values are often very different than our public values and that leads to collective illusions for our culture.
Todd Rose is convinced that unless we begin to question the collective illusions we are being fed by the media, technology and/or our leaders it is only going to get worse. (i.e. 80% of Twitter posts are created by only 20% of its members which includes bots and other countries with agendas—he doesn’t offer stats on Facebook but you can be sure the loudest and most outrageous come from bots too.) Eventually, according to Rose, the illusions being spread around will destroy our country and our democracy when we feel we can no longer trust others, our institutions or our government.
So how can knowing about collective illusions make me less cranky as I get older? Since I have begun listening to the research of Todd Rose, I have become much more mindful about how I easily judge others without really knowing the truth. Yes, it is embarrassing to admit but I doubt I am alone. I too often jump to conclusions about other people, politics, the media, Facebook and all sorts of things I am being “fed” by the world without thinking things through and checking my sources. And anytime I jump to the conclusion that someone is doing or saying something I don’t agree with—I tend to think that they are wrong. Todd Rose reminds me that most of us want to be treated kindly and with respect. Plus, even when we don’t agree, people are often happy just to be heard with an attempt to understand. If I can do my best to hear other people, and be kind and respectful when I do, then I doubt I’ll be called cranky.
I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be a cranky person as they age. But unless we are willing to challenge our own thinking and prejudices—and stay kind and respectful of each other—we may be judged as a curmudgeon. Starting today it might be SMART to examine and erase any collective illusions we have embraced in the past. At least I know I will.