Some say our country is more divided than ever. And—especially if you go online or watch the news—it can certainly seem that way. One phenomenon that’s likely fueling this division? The increasing prevalence of echo chambers, or environments where someone only encounters beliefs that reflect and reinforce their own.
“Echo chambers can happen anywhere information is exchanged, but the Internet has made echo chambers far more numerous and easy to fall into,” says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist with Henry Ford Health. “Almost anyone can quickly find like-minded people and perspectives via social media and countless news sources. And with social media algorithms that ensure we only see media that fits our preferences, we find ourselves scrolling through comfortable, self-confirming feeds.”
Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort our perspectives, making it difficult to consider opposing viewpoints and discuss complicated topics, says Dr. MacLean. Echo chambers can lead to narrow-minded thinking; they may also increase social and political polarization and extremism.
“Echo chambers can also influence the decisions we make and lead to poor or faulty choices,” says Dr. MacLean. “They can lead you to overlook warning signs and other important information.”
How Echo Chambers Fuel Confirmation Bias
Echo chambers perpetuate what psychologists call confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor information that reinforces existing beliefs. Unfortunately, we all have confirmation bias, says Dr. MacLean. Even if you believe you are very open-minded and only observe the facts before coming to conclusions, it's very likely that some bias will shape your opinion in the end.
“For example, imagine someone believes that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people,” says Dr. MacLean. “Whenever this person encounters someone who is both left-handed and creative, they will place greater importance on this ‘evidence’ that supports what they already believe. They might even seek proof that further backs up this belief while discounting examples that don't support the idea. You know the saying, ‘people usually see what they want to?’ That is confirmation bias.”
Overcoming Confirmation Bias & Expanding Beyond Our Echo Chambers
If we accept the fact that confirmation bias exists, we can make a conscious effort to be more curious about opposing views and really listen to what others have to say. The first step? Knowing when you’re in an echo chamber, which can sometimes be tricky to recognize. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do the sources tend to only give one perspective on an issue?
- Are viewpoints mainly supported by rumor or incomplete evidence?
- Are facts ignored whenever they go against that viewpoint?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have found an echo chamber. To avoid echo chambers, Dr. MacLean recommends looking for ways to challenge what you think you see and believe:
- Make a habit of checking multiple news sources to ensure you’re getting complete, objective information.
- Seek out people who have different perspectives than you. Take care to discuss new ideas with facts, patience and respect.
- Practice constructive controversy. Use phrases such as, “I’d love to hear more about why you feel that way.” Or, “This is a safe space. We don’t all have to agree all of the time, I’d love to learn from you.” Or, “I respect that you feel that way, this is what I was thinking.”
- Remember that just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it fact.
- Read books about experiences completely different from your own. The more we read about others’ experiences, the more empathetic and understanding we can become.
“Gathering information from a range of sources and multiple perspectives can help us grow,” says Dr. MacLean. “It allows for more objectivity, we become more innovative; the whole becomes stronger than the individual.”
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Dr. Lisa MacLean is a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients.