Think Outside of the Echo Chamber

Posted by Lee Yarborough on 12/8/16 8:30 AM
Lee Yarborough
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Posted on: December 8, 2016

An echo chamber is described as a situation in which information and beliefs are reinforced and repeated through an enclosed system, and competing views are underrepresented. Like in an enclosed structure, our ideas “echo” back to us.

The Internet, Social Media and Our Own Echo Chambers

Our experience on the internet shows us how an echo chamber works. Through complex equations and algorithms, our Internet searches produce results that are individualized and reflect how we already think and feel. If I buy a book from Amazon, I will see a list of other items that are similar to the book and they will be pitched to me every time I browse Amazon. My feed on Facebook reflects what I place value on—whether a funny cat video or a political commentary—when I “like” something then more of the same will appear on my screen.

The World Wide Web can expand our knowledge base and expose us to new and different ideas and concepts. However, echo chambers keep this outside exposure from occurring. When we surf the web, we are routed to sites that reflect our historical searches, shopping patterns, and current belief systems. The algorithms have forced us into our own personal echo chambers. While these may be helpful when shopping for a new dress, but when trying to understand another culture we are left viewing that group through a familiar lens rather than seeing it from a different perspective.

This year’s election highlighted the echo chamber effect. Some estimates state that up to 60% of people obtain their news from Facebook. Fake news and conspiracy theories were promoted, and social media users believed the information that “friends” posted. These stories became viral, and in the eyes of the readers, the stories were true. Many people “unfriended” people who were supporting the other candidate, which restricted their echo chambers even more. Many people were surprised by the outcome of the Presidential election, demonstrating that bubbles among different demographics prevented those people from seeing the full picture of the political landscape; they only saw the version that the algorithms were pushing to their feeds.

FURTHER READING: Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts

Echo chambers are not new in the age of the internet; they have always been prevalent. It is human nature to surround yourself with like-minded people. We choose churches, book clubs, and sports teams based on our likes and beliefs. This is a wonderful social dynamic that allows people to form friendships and relationships based on similar interests. However, it can also lead to discrimination and negative feelings about people who are not like them. Consider the Clemson and South Carolina rivalry: both teams have a supportive fan base, which provides a powerful sense of unity, yet when the competitive spirit is taken too far negative actions, and words fly between the opposing fans.

Facebook may have fake news, but offline, people have old-fashioned rumor mills that perpetuate falsehoods on a personal level. When a group of friends gather socially, and someone tells the latest rumor about a mutual acquaintance outside of the group, the friends tend to believe the rumor as truth. Our social groups are our echo chambers.

Don't Let Your Business Exist in a Vacuum

Even in the workplace, echo chambers exist. The sales team socializes with the sales team while the production staff sticks together. And everyone knows the annoying employee who echoes back the manager’s ideas in hopes of gaining brownie points. While it is more comfortable to exist in these bubbles of similarity, as leaders we need to make sure that we do not allow our businesses to exist in a vacuum.

People work best in social settings with diverse perspectives. Alex “Sandy” Pentland, an MIT professor, wrote about social learning in the workplace based on a research project that he and his colleagues conducted involving eToro, an online trading platform. The eToro platform is transparent and allows day traders to watch other traders’ performances. This helps each individual determine how to invest. Investors can make a “single trade” which is a normal stock purchase that the user makes on his own or a “social trade” which copies another user’s single trade. Like other social media platforms, users can “follow” each other and trade accordingly. If someone copies another trader, that trader is paid a small fee.

During 2011, Pentland and his team looked at 10 million financial transactions and gathered data from 1.6 million eToro users. From this, they determined that there were three types of traders. One group chose to invest in isolation. They did not follow many people and used their own investment strategies. The second group was extremely interconnected. They were essentially in an echo chamber. They followed each other and traded based on the ideas within their group. The third group was somewhere in the middle, exhibiting both independent as well as social trades copied from a wide range of people.

The third group had the most successful returns. But what is surprising from this study is not which group was most successful, but by how much. This group had returns that were 30% higher than both the lone wolves and the herd investors. This study clearly shows us that “the best decisions result from social exploration—the process of gathering, winnowing, and testing out ideas from other people.”

Pentland goes on to say that “Decisions don’t happen in a vacuum: the best ones rarely come from deep pondering in isolation. They happen when people learn from and draw on the experiences of others. In this process, success depends greatly on the quality of social exploration – and on whether your information and sources of ideas are diverse and independent.” (Pentland, “Beyond the Echo Chamber,” Harvard Business Review, November 2013)

Break Down the Walls of Echo Chambers in Your Business

So, how do you break down the walls of the echo chamber in your business?

  • Build diverse teams. Develop teams that have unique experiences and perspectives.
  • Encourage brainstorming. Have a facilitator to monitor the session so that all voices are heard.
  • Walk a mile in another’s shoes. Periodically plan days where employees shadow their co-workers. This builds camaraderie as well as an appreciation for each other’s work and is an important exercise that we often overlook during our busy days. Make it a part of your business culture.
  • Play the devil’s advocate. By taking the other side in a brainstorming session, it allows the team to look at less obvious solutions. Plus, it might encourage that brown-nosing employee to give his real opinion for once.
  • Ask people outside of your business for advice. Whether a formal board or an informal group of trusted advisors, it is important to reach out to those outside of your business.
  • Never say, “But we have always done it this way.” Make this phrase culturally taboo in your workplace. Ask why when reviewing your processes and encourage an environment where people can think outside of the box.
  • Be willing to listen to dissenting opinions. It is hard to leave our ego at home but to effectively break down our echo chambers, we must be willing to listen to different opinions and even criticism. These opinions might be just what your team and company need to solve a problem or help you increase your bottom line.
  • Get off social media and TALK. Although echo chambers still exist in the non-virtual world, you at least have the ability to discern body language and tone of voice when you are face to face. Engage in real dialogue with your team. The social media world tends to be a collective monologue where everyone “talks” but not in a coordinated fashion. Dialogue is a real conversation where ideas, thoughts, and musings are exchanged.

There has been a lot in the media lately about echo chambers in social media. After the election, this phenomenon became front page headlines with stories about fake news on Facebook. Many blame social media outlets like Facebook, for the fake news circulation and the algorithms that build the echo chambers, but they may just be an easy scapegoat. We must all be aware as individuals that echo chambers exist all around us. We need to make conscious decisions when looking for information and searching for solutions within our business as well as our daily lives. The more that we are aware of how this enclosed system works, the more we can be deliberate and be the force that can break down those walls.

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