According to Wikipedia:
An echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
It’s quite a wordy description for a fairly simple concept. When a person is exposed only to opinions that align with their own, their belief in that opinion is strengthened. Over time, as their viewpoint is continually reinforced, their position tends towards an extreme.
Nicholas DiFonzo, professor of psychology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, co-author of ‘Rumor Psychology’ and author of ‘The Watercooler Effect’ begins to break the group psychology of echo chambers down:
Among like-minded people, it’s hard to come up with arguments that challenge the group consensus, which means group members keep hearing arguments only in one direction.
DiFonzo places blame on a group’s inability to “challenge the group consensus”. It would, therefore, be fair to postulate that a key technique to avoiding an echo chamber would be to expose oneself to new and an opposing views.
Interestingly though, exposure to an opinion that is the extreme opposite to one’s own can actually reinforce one’s own perspective.
In a piece for WIRED, Alan Martin gives an illustrative example:
The Daily Mail publishes a right wing story that appeals to its own echo-chamber of right wing readers. This article is spread around Twitter’s own effective left wing echo-chamber. The result of this is usually an influx of outside voices invading the right wing echo chamber with extreme opposite responses, causing each party to retreat within their own personal echo chamber for reassurance. Rather than changing minds, the outcome is a stubborn refusal to engage on both sides.
Delving deeper, we find that it is not just extreme, opposite views that can have this reinforcing effect. In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times, Cass R. Sunstein looks at what happens when individuals are presented with balanced information:
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.
Indeed, that’s what a number of academic studies done over the last three decades have found. Such studies typically proceed in three stages. First, the experimenters assemble a group of people who have clear views on some controversial issue (such as capital punishment or sexual orientation). Second, the study subjects are provided with plausible arguments on both sides of the issue. And finally, the researchers test how attitudes have shifted as a result of exposure to balanced presentations.
You might expect that people’s views would soften and that divisions between groups would get smaller. That is not what usually happens. On the contrary, people’s original beliefs tend to harden and the original divisions typically get bigger. Balanced presentations can fuel unbalanced views.
This is a prime example of both ‘attitude polarisation’ (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence) and ‘belief perseverance’ (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false).
The reasoning behind why people respond to information like this was widely investigated in Leon Festinger’s legendary research into cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress experienced by an individual who is confronted by new information that conflicts with an existing belief.
According to Tom Stewart, chartered psychologist and founder of System Concepts, Festinger’s research showed, amongst other things, that:
People [in a state of cognitive dissonance] look to actively seek out reassuring voices in order to confirm their beliefs and resolve their internal conflict.
When somebody who holds a opinion strongly is confronted by new, contradictory information, they look for information that confirms their original belief in an attempt to resolve their cognitive dissonance.
To develop and defend justifiable opinions, it’s essential that we avoid the pitfalls of echo chambers. The best advice I’ve heard on how to do so was issued by Paul Saffo.