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Todd Rose

Todd Rose is the co-founder and president of Populace, a think tank committed to ensuring that all people have the opportunity to pursue fulfilling lives in a thriving society. Prior[…]
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  • Should we trust people to make choices for themselves, or control those choices for them?
  • As a free people in a free society, it is unacceptable that public institutions treat people as distrustful. If we continue to use the top-down control model, the consequences in terms of social trust will be too damaging.
  • What we need to do is trust communities to make decisions for themselves, trust families to make decisions for themselves, and trust people, too. If you want a trusting society, you have to work to dislodge this top-down view of our institutions and give more power to people. We must insist that our institutions treat the public with trust.

Collective Illusions is brought to you by Stand Together: a community of change makers tackling our biggest challenges.

TODD ROSE: Right now, we're living in a society in which collective illusions may be the defining feature. Simply put, collective illusions are situations where most people in a group go along with a view they don't agree with because they incorrectly believe that most people agree with it. It's not just that we're misreading a few people. It is that the majority thinks the majority believes something that they don't.

What's most interesting is that in all of our research, one of the largest illusions of all is actually about trust itself. No matter how we have asked it, a vast majority of Americans see themselves as trustworthy and value being trustworthy. However, they believe almost everybody else in society today does not care about being trustworthy and is not trustworthy. There is no bigger illusion in society today than the illusion of distrust itself. The biggest consequence of that is that we have stopped trusting each other, which is fatal to free society.

Given the profound lack of trust in society today, we often look for the cause of that in each other. I don't believe that's true. Frederick Taylor is probably the most important person that most people have never heard of. Over 100 years ago, he wrote a book called Scientific Management, which they were about his ideas about how you create a productive economy, and he felt like the biggest problem in society was that we weren't very efficient. And so Scientific Management literally said, wait, the first thing you have got to stop doing is trusting people. He went about implementing a systems-first approach to a top-down society, governed by managers. In fact, he invented the term manager and he made us all cogs where the system matters most. Because of the way our institutions treat us by removing choice from us and fundamentally treating us as untrustworthy, we have come to see each other through that lens.

But here is the thing. When you actually study honesty and trustworthiness, what you find over and over again is that the vast majority of people are in fact trustworthy. One of my favorite studies, it's a pretty famous German study, and here is what they did. They literally just randomly called people and said that there was a contest going on and all they needed to do was flip a coin themselves, and if it landed on tails, they got a gift certificate. If it landed on heads, they got nothing.

Now what's important is, nobody knows how the coin lands except for the person on the phone. So you would have expected everybody says tails, takes the gift certificate, and the aggregate results are like, "Well, it's 100% tails. Who would have thought?" Right? It's not what happened. It was almost 50/50 heads or tails, and in fact, it was slightly more in favor of heads, which tells me most people, if not all people, were telling the truth about how the coin landed when no one else could possibly have known. So it matters to us, not just that we are trustworthy, but that we are viewed that way, and yet we live in a society where our institutions continue to remind us that this is not true, that we are in some way untrustworthy.

We can only interact with each other in one of two ways. We can trust people to make choices for themselves, or we can control those choices for them. It is a fundamental tenant of democracy that institutions serve people, but ever since Frederick Taylor, we have flipped that relationship. As a free people in a free society, it is unacceptable that our public institutions treat the people as distrustful because now we know that whatever efficiency you get from that top-down control model, the consequences in terms of human dignity and social trust are so damaging that that trade-off is not worth it. What we need is to trust communities to make decisions for themselves, trust families to make decisions for themselves, and trust people, too. If you want a trusting society, work to dislodge this top down view of our institutions and give more power to people. Insist that our institutions treat the public with trust.

NARRATOR: This series is brought to you by Stand Together, a community of change-makers tackling our biggest challenges. And to learn more about how you can partner with Stand Together, visit standtogether.org.