Book Review - Collective Illusions

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Books currently being recommended for corporate board members are typically about emerging governance issues like ESG and DEI, and the board member’s bookshelf is usually filled with deeper dives into topics like risk management and M&A. Rarely does a book come along that, while intended for general readership, is also of particular interest for board members.

Such a book is Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions by Todd Rose (Hachette, 2022). Rose, a trained neuroscientist and former faculty member at Harvard Graduate School of Education, provides a detailed and interesting analysis of the science behind how normal human beings are affected by various types of biases and blind spots, which lead to bad decisions. From an evolutionary viewpoint, this raises the question of why humans developed in this way. The answer seems to lie in a larger social need being met, one of fitting in with the group, following what other people think or do in order to avoid being the exception or suffer the embarrassment of being wrong.
Effective board governance benefits from board members being healthily skeptical and establishing a board culture that does not squelch or disfavor differing viewpoints or challenging questions. Rose points out that, in society, we learn not to be an exception from the herd, not to question “authority” and to implicitly trust that whatever everyone else is doing must be OK. Therefore, it is not hard to envision a board dynamic that encourages a “go along to get along” mentality, which can lead to overlooking potentially important facts and avoiding further inquiry.

The terms that Rose uses for the forms of bias he describes (conformity bias, copycat trap, etc.) have appeared elsewhere. However, his book cites extensive and varied research that shows repeatedly how we disregard our personal feelings about a topic in favor of how we believe others feel. Examples include research that asked people how they felt about certain issues, followed by how they believed others felt. Invariably, the arithmetic did not line up: If as many people really believed “A” instead of “B” (as they said they did individually), it would be impossible for the number of other people that they assume believe “B” to exist. This may explain why so often in history populations have accepted or gone along with positions that they individually believed to be wrong simply because they did not believe enough support existed for a different viewpoint.

Why is this important to directors? Board members must avoid the risks of groupthink, which too often invades boards as well as management teams. Rose advocates developing an awareness that begins with oneself but can be expanded to the groups of which one is a part. This can address the preexisting inertia and momentum toward a given conclusion that should be questioned or proved. He refers to this as developing “personal congruence” and explains how it can be developed and strengthened within oneself and extended to the groups of which one is a part, such as a board of directors.

Rose is a scientist and cites many research studies to illustrate his points. But his book is written for the general reader and is quite understandable to nonscientists. While many have heard about cognitive bias and related subjects, this book really illustrates in a completely understandable way how easily we as human beings overlook and ignore facts that should be the impetus for further inquiry and, possibly, further action. I can easily see board members experiencing a shift in their thinking and adopting Rose’s encouragement of self-awareness regarding societal forces that limit our thinking and action, and extending that learning to the boards on which they serve. 

Howard Brod Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Corporation, an M&A and turnaround management firm, and serves as an independent corporate board member for Merakey and P&F Industries Inc.

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