We all ‘outsource’ some of our beliefs. I mean, we’re all so busy, right? Who has time to research every single belief they have about the world?
Outsourcing our thoughts is generally a good thing. It helps us gain leverage from another's experience. When we're young, we outsource the majority, if not all, of our beliefs to our parents or people we admire. We rely on their knowledge and take their word for truth. I like to refer to beliefs that we've derived from an authority figure as "authority-based opinions."
We all outsource our knowledge, too. Most of us believe that kale is healthy, even though we haven't proven it ourselves. If we never outsourced any of our thinking, we would be paralysed by the simplest decision. Could you imagine having to fix a water leak yourself because you refuse to outsource the thinking and problem-solving to a plumber?
So, what's the problem? Well, the issue arises when we don't make a conscious choice about which beliefs and opinions we are outsourcing. Ask yourself - what authority-based opinions do you hold and are they true? Not being aware of this is, in my opinion, intellectually irresponsible.
Not questioning why Mum said a blue jacket is better than a yellow jacket is probably not going to change the world. But not questioning why Dad says to vote for [insert political party] is most likely going to impact a lot of people's lives.
What is the echo chamber (EC) effect?
To better understand ECs, I believe it is critical to learn about the way we think and hold beliefs. While a magnificent feat of the human brain, our ability to reason is extremely fragile and vulnerable to errors and hijacking.
I believe it’s impossible to understand the danger that ECs represent without understanding the many ways our flawed human perception can distort our view of reality.
We must first discuss the following three topics: (1) leaps of faith; (2) confirmation bias; and (3) logical fallacies.
1. Leaps of faith
I like to think of our senses as 'measurement tools’. These tools help us navigate our way through the physical world—the world that we can see, touch, and experience through our five senses. We use these tools to arrive at truths present in the physical world.
However, our measurement tools have only been fine-tuned by evolution over millions of years to maximise our chances for survival and not for learning about truths. Our perception of the actual, real world is limited by the extent to which our tools allow us to experience it.
This ‘real world’ is referred to in philosophy as the ‘metaphysical world’ - a posited reality outside of human senses. Can you see X-rays with your own eyes? Can you feel radiation ripping through you if you're exposed to it? Evolutionarily, we never needed to see X-rays or feel the effects of radiation to survive.
Yeah, I know, who cares about the metaphysical world, right? I mean, the physical world is what matters. I don't care what actual reality looks like; all I know is that if I don't look both ways when crossing the road, I could get hurt.
It would be a real shame to dismiss the lessons we can learn from thinking about the metaphysical world. Considering that we arrive at "truth" via reasoning and logic that are somewhat confined to the physical world, it means that to believe in anything beyond simple, observable cause and effect, is a leap of faith, to some degree.
In other words, to believe in anything is a leap of faith, since we cannot arrive at absolute truths i.e., something that is true in all contexts.
If there is anything I would like you to remember from reading this post, it's this:
To believe in anything is a leap of faith, but not ALL leaps of faith are created equal.
(1) I believe that our planet is in motion, rotating and orbiting the sun.
(2) I do NOT believe that our planet is in motion, rotating and orbiting the sun.
Both of these beliefs are a leap of faith, but are they created equal?
To avoid confusion, it’s important to define what ‘equal’ means in this context. ‘Equal’ means that the argument/belief presented has a 50/50 chance of being true. Meaning that the probability of belief (1) being true is 50% and equally so, the probability of it being false is also 50% (2).
Here’s what I mean by saying that not all leaps of faith are created equal. From an objective view, logical and observable evidence, the probability of belief (1) being true is a lot more than 50%, and consequently belief (2) being true is way less than 50%.
This is a straight-forward example that may seem like a no-brainer at first. However, this wasn’t always the case. The cardinals at Galileo’s trial insisted that it was a reasonable belief that the Earth was stationery because they couldn’t feel it moving. He was sentenced to house arrest until his death in 1642.
2. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort that arises when we hold two or more beliefs, ideas, or values that contradict each other. We also experience cognitive dissonance when we come across information that is against what we already believe.
Cognitive dissonance is often an unpleasant experience, so our brains go to great lengths to reduce it. It does this in various ways. For example by changing our behaviours or beliefs, or by avoiding situations that might create cognitive dissonance.
Confirmation bias is a common method our brains use to reduce cognitive dissonance. This is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when we give more credibility to information that supports our existing beliefs, while ignoring or giving less weight to information that contradicts those beliefs. This bias can lead us to make decisions or draw conclusions that are not fully supported by the evidence, since they are influenced by our existing beliefs or desires.
ECs enhance our confirmation bias and keep us looking for information that supports our beliefs instead of thinking about other perspectives.
But why is that the case? Why do we experience cognitive dissonance? There are several theories that have been proposed to explain this phenomenon. The reason for this discomfort, in my opinion, is linked to our survival instincts (a topic I aim to cover in a future blog post).
3. Logical fallacies
A fallacy is the conscious or unconscious use of faulty or invalid reasoning, that leads to a false conclusion about an issue. I strongly believe it's important that we’re aware of these fallacies because they can be used to manipulate and deceive others.
By recognising these flawed patterns of reasoning, we can more effectively evaluate arguments and make informed decisions. There are too many fallacies to explain them all here, but I would like to go through 5 of the ones I believe are most commonly used:
(1) The slippery slope fallacy
This is when someone claims that a specific event or series of events will inevitably result in a specific (usually negative) outcome.
Example: If we allow kids to play video games, next thing you know, they'll be playing all day and never do their homework. Before you know it, they'll become addicted to gaming and drop out of school. And then they'll have to live in their parents' basement forever, surviving on a diet of energy drinks and pizzas. They'll never get a job or have a meaningful relationship, and they'll end up as lonely, friendless shut-ins. We must ban video games to save our children's future!
The argument suggests that allowing kids to play video games will lead to a series of events that will ultimately result in the kids becoming addicted to gaming, failing out of school, and living a lonely, unfulfilled life.
However, this argument relies on several unfounded assumptions and exaggerations. For example, it assumes that all kids who play video games will become addicted, which is not necessarily true. It also exaggerates the potential consequences of video game addiction, suggesting that it will lead to a lifetime of loneliness and failure.
Most of the time, the slippery slope fallacy simplifies a complicated ‘grey’ issue into a black-or-white one.
(2) False dichotomy
A false dichotomy, also known as a false dilemma or ‘Black-and-White’ thinking, is a logical fallacy in which only a few options are presented, while in reality there are more options. It involves presenting two options as the only possibilities when, in fact, there are more possibilities.
This fallacy is often used to simplify a complex issue or to force someone to make a decision by limiting the options on the table. It can be used to trick people into thinking they have to choose one of the options given when, in reality, they have other options.
Example: "You either support Brexit and love freedom, or you oppose Brexit and hate Britain. There is no other option!"
This statement presents a false dichotomy because it suggests that there are only two options: either support Brexit or hate Britain. However, this is not the case. One could oppose Brexit for a variety of reasons, such as concerns about the economic consequences of leaving the EU, without hating Britain. The argument also suggests that those who support Brexit are motivated by a love of freedom, which is not necessarily true. This type of argument is flawed because it oversimplifies a complex issue and ignores alternative perspectives.
(3) Appeal to authority
This occurs when a person accepts a statement as true simply because it has been made by someone who is perceived to be an authority on the subject.
This type of argument is fallacious because the truth of a statement should not depend on the credentials or perceived expertise of the person making it. Instead, the truth of a statement should be based on evidence and reason.
It is important to carefully evaluate the arguments and evidence presented by an authority, rather than blindly accepting their claims simply because of their position or reputation. It is also worth noting that sometimes, this fallacious argument can be used by appealing not to a person but to anything, even a document:
Example: The Militia Act of 1903 was a U.S. federal law that was passed in 1903. The act established the National Guard as a reserve military force and required all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 - 45 to register for military service. The act also required these men to maintain their own firearms for use in the militia. The purpose of the act was to create a ready reserve of military personnel who could be called upon in case of a national emergency.
The act was based on the authority of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
In this example, the U.S. government used the authority of the Constitution to support its argument that the Militia Act of 1903 is necessary and just. They are appealing to the authority of the Constitution as a trusted source of guidance on issues related to the militia and the right to bear arms.
The argument that the Militia Act of 1903 is necessary and just because it is supported by the authority of the U.S. Constitution could be considered fallacious for a few reasons, such as:
The government is using the authority of the Constitution to support its argument, rather than presenting any direct evidence or reasoning to support its claim.
The Constitution is not necessarily a reliable or unbiased source of information on the issue of gun laws. The Constitution is a document that was written by human beings and is subject to interpretation and debate.
The argument is incomplete. While the Second Amendment does mention the right to bear arms and the importance of a well-regulated militia, it does not supply all of the information necessary to fully understand the issue of gun laws. There may be other factors that need to be considered in order to make an informed decision about gun laws, such as the impact on public safety, the rights of gun owners, and the potential for abuse.
(4) Ad hominem
This is when someone attacks the character or motives of an opponent rather than addressing the opponent's argument or position.
This is a logical fallacy because it does not address the substance of the argument and instead relies on personal attacks or insults. An ad hominem argument is often used to distract from the real issues or undermine the credibility of the opponent.
Example: In the year 399 BC, the Greek philosopher Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the Gods. One of his accusers, Meletus, made an ad hominem argument against him, saying: "Socrates, you are an old man, and yet you have spent your whole life seeking out new teachings and rejecting the traditional ways of our ancestors. You are a corrupting influence on the youth of our city, and you do not deserve to live here."
In this argument, Meletus attacked Socrates' character and age rather than addressing the arguments he has made.
(5) Hasty Generalisation
This is when we make a judgement based on minimal evidence. This happens when we draw sweeping generalisations or conclusions from a small sample size or a relatively limited body of evidence.
Example: a person goes to a foreign country and has a negative experience with one of the local people. Based on this single experience, the person concludes that all people from that country are rude and unfriendly.
This is an example of the hasty generalisation fallacy because It's possible that the person only met one rude person from that country, and it would be wrong to assume that everyone from that country is rude based on this one encounter.
Back to Echo Chambers (ECs)
Now that we have a better understanding of the various ways our ability to reason can be flawed or manipulated, we can start talking about the EC effect. The EC effect is the phenomenon where you are only exposed to opinions and ideas that align with your own, leading to reinforcement of your already established beliefs.
ECs can create bias by limiting the range of perspectives that you are exposed to. This reinforces the beliefs that you already hold within your group, leading to a distorted view of the world. It also makes it difficult for you to consider other viewpoints or challenge your own beliefs. It can create a false sense of consensus or certainty about an issue, which can make it difficult for you to change your mind even when presented with contradicting information.
ECs can result in a lack of understanding or empathy for people who hold different beliefs since you may only interact with those who share your beliefs and perspective.
Social media and the rise of ECs
I believe that the world is becoming more polarised due to the creation of ECs, thanks to the social media business model. It is my firm belief that we, as a species, have created a situation that, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to great human suffering.
Social media platforms are designed to maximise the amount of time that we (the users) spend on their platform as much as possible. Since these social platforms are free to use, the only way these firms can make money is through advertising.
It's a simple formula that most people have figured out by now:
the more time you spend on the app = the more ads you'll see = the more revenue they’ll get
I highly recommend the Netflix documentary "The Social Dilemma", which explains how these algorithms are designed to get us addicted to using these sites in far more depth than I could ever hope to communicate via this blog post. When the product we are consuming is free, sadly, this often means that we are the product.
The design of these algorithms can really alter our individual sense of reality. They reshape the lens through which we see the world. And if we are unaware of this, it can lead to a serious issue for us as individuals and for the well-being of society.
It's best to explain this with an example. Here's one:
A mother of a teenage daughter sees a video on social media about the recent kidnapping of a teenage girl.
Intrigued and compassionate, the mother watches the full video.
The social media algorithm makes note of how long the mother watched this video, whether she pressed the like button or not, and whether she commented on it or not.
Due to the mother's interaction with the video, the social media algorithm will begin suggesting more and more videos of the same theme (i.e., teenage kidnapping, missing persons, prosecuted criminals, etc.).
That mother's lens is now somewhat distorted. Her view and experience of the world are now altered and reinforced every time she opens her phone. This is now her new reality. In her eyes, the world has become a much more dangerous and hostile place. Not to mention the fact that these algorithms are adding fuel to the fire if the person was already experiencing anxiety or paranoia.
This exact scenario plays in a wide range of topics: anti-vax, flat earth, 5G controlling the population, political propaganda, and so on, to name a few.
Side note: I would like to emphasise that these algorithms can also work in our favour. If we make a deliberate effort to interact and seek educational content, for example, we will be exposed to more educational and helpful content. I believe these algorithms can really boost our quality of life and knowledge of the world when mindfully used in the right way.
ECs effect on an individual level & societal level
When we're in an EC, we tend to become isolated and disconnected from those who hold different opinions. Our beliefs may become exaggerated or distorted. In my opinion, ECs also lead to a lack of empathy. When we're only exposed to information that confirms our existing beliefs, we become less open to other perspectives and may have difficulty understanding or empathising with the experiences of those who hold contrary views.
This lack of empathy inevitably creates more division. And in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, division is the enemy. As a species, as we grow in numbers and develop our society and quality of life, we begin to encounter issues that require a greater number of mass cooperation to solve them.
When we lived as small tribes of hunter-gatherers, one of the main issues we encountered was coordinating hunts and food sharing. Hunting large animals such as mammoths or bison required the cooperation and coordination of multiple individuals to track and kill the animal. Cooperation was also necessary to ensure that everyone had enough to eat and survive.
As we grew in numbers, we formed small villages. Coordinating hunts was no longer necessary since we relied on farming and agriculture. However, we started to face new issues that didn't exist before. For example, water management: villages often relied on a single source of water, such as a river or well, so issues such as drought or contamination had a significant impact on survival. This required cooperation and coordination among village members to mitigate the effects and find solutions.
As we continued to grow in numbers, we formed countries. And with lots of people, we continued to face issues that didn't exist before. A decline in economic growth, unemployment, inflation, and budget deficits became issues that required greater mass coordination to solve.
As we continued to grow even more in numbers, we formed continents and international relations. Globalisation brought new challenges such as climate change, that now requires the coordination and cooperation of even more people across the globe. It is a collective problem that can't be solved by individuals or single countries alone. I guess what I'm trying to convey is that as we continue to progress and evolve as a species, community, and society, the challenges we encounter will increasingly call upon us to cultivate greater compassion, patience, and understanding towards one another.
What can we do about ECs?
Confirmation bias, social-proof, and lack of self-awareness amongst other things, make it difficult to realise when we are in an echo chamber. However, there are definitely a number of things we can do as individuals to ensure that the beliefs we hold are as rationale as they can be. Here are 3 of my favourite ones:
1. Take a step-back & seek out diverse sources of information
If you ever come across a 60-second TikTok and after it you feel like you understand the issue 100% - take a step-back and evaluate the information presented. There are very few topics that can be explained in 60 seconds and even fewer that are black-or-white.
If you feel like an expert on a subject, and that your opinion is the correct one, this is your sign to seek more information, especially contradicting information and evaluate the rationale behind each position.
The paradox of wisdom is inescapable. The more you learn, the more you realise how much you don't know.
2. Practice critical thinking
The phrase 'use it or lose' is true in a literal sense when it comes to our brains. Any neural circuits that we do not use, are trimmed down and pruned. On the other hand, the more we use a specific neural circuit, the quicker and more efficient it will become.
Practicing critical thinking is most certainly difficult at first, but if we are intentional in creating a habit of critically thinking about any information presented to us, it becomes easier to identify things like logical fallacies.
3. Be intentional in your use of social media platforms
Follow accounts that have opposing views to your own. This can ensure you're exposed to new ideas and perspectives. It can help you understand and appreciate different viewpoints.
Additionally, you can consider having 2 separate accounts. For example:
(1) An entertainment YouTube account where you follow and watch random videos when you’re bored; and
(2) An education focused YouTube account where you are intentional in the content you follow and consume. That way you make use of the algorithm and get it to work in your favour.
The word philosophy comes from the Greek words "Philo" and "Sophia". Philo means ‘love’ or ‘loving’, and Sophie means ‘wisdom’ or ‘knowledge’.
Therefore, to be a philosopher, you don't need to be the next Kant or mimic the mindset of Marcus Aurelius. To be a philosopher is simply to love the quest for knowledge and strive for wisdom. I read somewhere that to be a philosopher is to be on the bridge of a never-ending love for knowledge with no destination. It is to keep walking, knowing that there very well may be no end. We might never arrive at absolute truth, and that's okay. Perhaps some things are simply not a function of the human experience, so we may never fully understand them. But that doesn't mean we should throw our hands in the air, give up, and jump off the bridge of reason, into the sea of comforting ideas. We must not let our ability to reason and use logic to question our own beliefs wither away.
Every single war, every single crime, every single human action that lead to the suffering of another human being - that has ever occurred, is occurring, and will ever occur - was born from one thing:
Thank you for reading. Until next time, keep on construing your thoughts.