By Andrés Muñoz

Human beings love to debate. As sentient beings who now think and reason after millions of years of evolution, we’ve reached our current point in history thanks to exploring ideas and perspectives. Whether it was Greek philosophers, Buddhist Monks, or Europeans during the Enlightenment, passionate discourse and rhetoric opened new doors that humanity could explore and advance through. 

Cut to 2022: what if these doors of perception were not shown by a real conversation between understanding individuals but created by a social media network’s algorithm? Where would they take us? Are we still wanting to engage in discourse with people with different opinions? Or are these social networks pigeonholing us into marketable chunks of humans that think alike and want to stay only with those we agree with? Let’s check out social media’s effect on us having valuable conversations and see what we can do about it.

A Mind In A Chamber

When you like something on social media, the platform’s algorithm—be it Facebook, Instagram or another—will provide you with content and ideas that are generally related to what you like. This happens so that your profile may be easily categorised for advertising purposes. For better or worse, the algorithm creates a mini-universe for you (or echo chamber), exposing you to things you like and actively sparing you from the things you don’t. 

This is not new. A University of Cambridge study in 2014 found that a computer’s judgement of a person is better than humans’ based on the data from the “likes” you have. With 10 likes, a computer could predict an individual’s preferences better than their coworkers. With 70, better than their friends, 150, better than their parents or relatives, and with 300 likes, the computer would know a person better than their own spouse. Add to that your entire sharing, commenting, and browsing history—all providing information—how could they not create a perfect little universe for you? Anyway, how willing would you be to interact with those with opposing stances to things you hold dear?

“Good Point… You’re Right” – Intellectual Humility And Online Discussions

When something is posted publicly, your commitment to a statement solidifies, and your stance on something becomes more stubborn. This can be up to such a point that you might refuse information that could change your mind. A case in point is the countless politicians, artists and celebrities being called out on tweets that they posted long before the rise of their celebrity status. Have they grown in their understanding of the world since they posted that content? One would hope so! 

This is another critical element of intellectual humility. Being the bigger person and saying yes, I was wrong. Not everything should boil down to simply a debate on a Facebook thread or YouTube comments section. 

The problem, however, is that when people generally discuss an issue on the internet, the objective of the conversation is to “win the debate”. To have the last word. To be right. The search for the truth is often discarded from the start when both parties speak only to counter and not to be understood.

Echo Chambers And Polarisation: What To Do?

Echo chambers help reinforce the biases we have. We end up believing that we know more than what we actually know. We are constantly exposed to confirmation bias, where what we agree upon is celebrated. Anything that might be against our group’s thoughts is regarded as untrue, irrelevant, or outright wrong. Shouldn’t we approach issues from a more open perspective so we can have an opportunity to embrace our intellectual humility? 

When was the last time an honest debate and conversation opened your mind and allowed you to embrace the opinions and perspectives of others without antagonising anyone in the discussion?

While recent studies from Dartmouth College show that polarisation results in more voters finding themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum rather than in the middle, the more intellectually humble we are, the better chances of us meeting halfway. 

So how do we avoid the confirmation bias present in echo chambers? 

First, we admit that it might exist. We embrace our intellectual humility and be open enough to acknowledge that we don’t have all the information and take on board different viewpoints with curiosity and respect. 

Secondly, we create a growth mindset. Nothing is static; our minds mean to grow and learn from the past, so it is natural for you to learn about different viewpoints. Whether you agree with them or not, it is valuable information you will now possess. 

Lastly, focus on finding the truth! Don’t have conversations to “win” them, but try to learn something from them. What other strategies do you think might enhance your intellectual humility? 

Let us know your thoughts on this and see if you can change our minds!