The Problem With Like-Minded People
Written By Calvin Sun
(Originally Published October 16, 2016)
Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can be a powerful and positive thing to behold. For many, there’s a sense of camaraderie and an indescribable bond that can form when you have found yourself amongst your “tribe”. We can often observe it in communities and organizations where common values and a unifying mission are shared. We also witness it in the gym among groups of people who share similar interests and face the same struggles as they strive towards their goals. Surrounding yourself with only like-minded people might seem favorable at first glance, but some evidence suggests it might not always prove to be the case. While it’s no secret that having a successful peer group tends to push you towards higher levels of achievement, limiting your thoughts and perspectives to a singular, like-minded peer group might prove to be a problem when it comes to progress and growth of better ideas.
The Ideological Echo Chamber
In today’s age of social media and digital information, it seems that we often alienate ourselves from those who think differently. On social media platforms, for example, there’s a common practice of “unfriending” or “unfollowing” those who hold opposing views and befriending and following more people, media sources and thought leaders that share the same current viewpoints. As more people who might offer a contrasting but valid perspective are pruned off an individual’s social network, an echo chamber of ideas is created where one’s ideological positions can become further entrenched and extreme.
This phenomenon is described as “group polarization” by Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein. In his paper on the topic, he explains how deliberation among groups of people of similar opinions appears to move them “toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments”. In other words, the peer group avoids thoughtful debate and instead only validates each other’s viewpoints without offering a balanced discussion of the topic at hand. As individuals in the group hear their own opinions echoed back to them, their current paradigms and belief systems are only further reinforced and perceived to be universally accepted. The end result of such deliberation among like-minded individuals is often a more radical and extreme position. This effect can be most notably observed in politics, religion, business and education. In the United States, we’ve witnessed this phenomenon with an increasingly divided country and the rise of political groups that lean further out to either end of the spectrum.
Social media, once intended as a tool to connect us, has permitted a form of technologically-induced groupthink. While social media has succeeded in connecting us with the like-minded, it’s failed to connect us with those who think differently from ourselves. The result is that perspectives have become narrowed rather than widened and mediocre ideas have often become the unchallenged status quo.
Echo Chambers Exist Offline Too
This phenomenon of group polarization is not exclusive to digital platforms. For example, I was recently introduced to a coach who demonstrated that ideological polarization occurs in professional circles as well. We got into a discussion about inflammation management strategies for athletes and after a brief conversation, it became clear that he was merely parroting what he had heard repeated over and over from his peer group. It was evident that he had not bothered to read the original sources of information or study the research conducted by experts. This coach had fallaciously assumed that because everyone in his social circle shared the same view on the topic, it must be the absolute truth. In fact, he was incontrovertibly dogmatic about his stance on the issue with no supporting evidence other than the shared opinion of his professional peer group.
A diversity of information and opinions are needed to produce better ideas and solutions. In the health and fitness industry, we can observe ideological polarization occurring as trainers and coaches who believe in one training methodology, dietary approach, or even a singular idea tend to surround themselves with others who think the same way and shun those who oppose them. This problem can be compounded when we consider that many group fitness facilities in the industry are effectively segregated tribes of a few hundred clients led by a handful of coaches who might infrequently connect with those outside of their community.
If these communities lack adequate diversity of thought, they run the risk of becoming ideologically polarized. For example, you might have experienced this first hand if you’ve ever joined a fitness community that held an unyielding and dogmatic position on nutrition, training, or any other relevant aspect of health (i.e. “You’re wrong if you don’t follow this diet, program, method, etc”). Ultimately, this is detrimental to progress and growth as echo chambers tend to stifle creativity and innovation.
“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.” – Walter Lippmann
Take a look at the coaches, experts, courses, programs, seminars, certifications, blogs, videos, books, and peers you have chosen in your life. Are you in the middle of a homogenous ideological pool? Is everyone saying the same thing? Or put another way, are you able to identify someone who holds a contrarian viewpoint? If not, you might very well be residing in the middle of a particularly insular echo chamber. What’s something you could do to broaden your perspectives?
In your personal and professional peer groups, does anyone challenge your thinking? For that matter, are you open to the idea of being challenged or does your ego get in the way? Are you quick to judge and dismiss those who don’t share your same views? Are you able to have thoughtful, reasoned debate with your peers? Or are you forced to conform to their ideas because any disagreement devolves into conflict and personal attacks?
Regurgitating dated ideologies, settling for the status quo, and isolating ourselves from dissimilar views is not the path to progress and better results. Instead, it moves us towards collective mediocrity and creates disdain for opposing viewpoints. In addition to your like-minded circles, consider surrounding yourself with more people who challenge and motivate you to be better. Be open to hearing the ideas of those who might oppose your current way of thinking. See if you can sympathize with some of their positions and have the humility to consider changing your own views if you find yourself swayed. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
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