- Risks of being in an echo chamber include avoiding other perspectives and having to prove you are right.
- Recognize that any conversation is better than no conversation with someone with opposing views.
- Show genuine curiosity about people's viewpoints and ask questions that are not accusatory to find common ground.
There is a trend of us becoming more divided. Politics are becoming more left and right. Religions are more extreme. And people are arguing opinions versus facts.
The power of the internet has been a double-edged sword. It has allowed those in smaller communities to find like-minded individuals and build a sense of community. However, it means that the one radical person in the small town—who would usually see their thoughts were not the norm and rethink their stance—finds others they can take solace, giving rise to hate groups.
So what's happening?
In many individualistic societies, a debate is seen as one winning and another losing rather than creating collective, collaborative solutions. Additionally, the expanse of global communications and infinite information with the intent of everyone having a source of truth created an environment where people can find niche sources to justify beliefs or opinions.
For example, the rise of QAnon. Which, very oversimplified, grew from a group around two decades ago that discovered atheism instead of their likely-Christian upbringing. They realized that some aspects of Christianity didn't make sense and that science had better answers to some of life's questions. They felt awakened by new knowledge and were positively reinforced to challenge the status quo by like-minded individuals.
The "challenging of religious ideals" created momentum. After events like 9/11 and the forming Al-Qaeda and ISIS, being anti-religious became anti-Muslim. (Note: This faulty logic journey is also the creation story of many Al-Qaeda and ISIS groups, which aren't rooted in Islamic beliefs anymore.)
Some people stopped their journey here, but many wanted to challenge more ideas as they were on the "high" of discovery and a new sense of community. So they started challenging the very thing that had brought them answers.
How could they believe in science when not all scientists agree? It didn't feel secure to "bet on the horse," constantly having ongoing discussions and debates. And how can you be reinforced for being "right" if there is no "right" answer yet? This group started praising each other for challenging science, and, thus, the anti-vaxxers, the plan-demics, and "climate change is a hoax" groups arose.
From there, the "challenge everything" kept growing. With a globally-connected community reinforcing each other, we now face an ever-growing (and now mainstream) group of conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, and QAnon.
How do we check ourselves?
Surrounding yourself with people who support your beliefs feels comforting and motivating. However, never reflecting on your beliefs can lead you into an echo chamber. If you never expose yourself to people or ideas that challenge yours, you begin distancing yourself from being able to understand or empathize.
Thus, we forget or blatantly avoid having these other conversations. You may have grown up in a "polite society" where you were told not to have these conversations and, therefore, don't know how to have them. If you don't avoid, you may fight because you think you are being rational and logical and that "you are right." Guess what? So do they.
Being open and humble in what you do and don't know is challenging but also freeing. Removing your ego from opinions that aren't tied to your identity takes an enormous weight off. Knowing that any discussion is about the topic and not a judgment on you can help you stay rational and receptive.
To see if you are at risk of being in an echo chamber, ask yourself:
- How often do I expose myself to other perspectives?
- How often do I find myself trying to prove I am right?
- What do I do when faced with information that goes against my viewpoint?
- Do I disengage from people with different viewpoints because it's "hopeless"?
Once you introspect, it's time to have some real conversations.
- Recognize that any conversation is better than no conversation. There is always something to learn. Even if it's not changing your perspective, it's learning about the other person.
- Express genuine curiosity about their beliefs. For example, "Oh interesting, so would you say…?" or "I've never thought about it from that perspective, say more about that, so I understand."
- Ask questions that are not accusatory. Do not ask "why?" "Why" can sound judgmental. Instead, ask for further information or their thoughts on how they got from point A to point B.
- Find common ground. Now that you have listened more than speaking, you likely have some common ground that you can start expressing your perspective but rooted in a common belief, value, or objective.
For example, when you disagree with someone about mask mandates, you believe they help protect others' health and their right to be safe, and someone else thinks it violates people's freedoms. Discussing it might help you uncover that you both have a shared value of protecting human rights. With that foundation, you can have a common ground to start hosting a conversation.
These "across the divide" conversations are essential to help us keep our communities, build empathy, and retain our critical thinking skills.
Bass & Riggio, 2006; McKinsey, 2012; Meinecke & Kauffeld, 2018; Yukl, 2010