This is Chapter 8 in a blog series. If you’re new to the series, visit the series home page for the full table of contents.
Chapter 8: Idea Labs and Echo Chambers
“Sheep wish no taste but woolly sweet conformity.” ― Kevin Focke
Chapter 7 began with a question: “Why do we believe what we believe?”
We spent the rest of Chapter 7 thinking about thinking in 2D, exploring how our thinking process changed as we moved up and down the second dimension: the Psych Spectrum. At the end of the chapter, I reminded us that the entire discussion was only looking at a 2D cross section of what’s actually a 3D space of human thinking and behavior.
The good news is the third dimension is something we already became familiar with early on in the series: Emergence Tower. Here it is in all its fully extended glory:
We’d all be having maximum fun right now if we were about to dive into a discussion about the multiversesphere. Unfortunately, we have human concerns to deal with first. So we’ll zoom in here:
Seeing in 3D
The reason we need our second dimension—the Psych Spectrum—is because humans exist along a span of the Psych Spectrum. That’s why it’s a dimension.
We need our third dimension for the same reason. You don’t really need a third dimension to think about the behavior of ants or polar bears, because they exist almost entirely at a single point along Emergence Tower. Ants never function as self-important individuals—they’re always cells in a colony who live entirely for the well-being of the colony. Polar bears are almost1 always solitary selfish individuals, rarely sacrificing themselves for the well-being of neighboring polar bears.
But humans are more complicated. Like ants, humans often function as cells in a larger tribe giant—but unlike ants, humans are also complex enough to function as true individual entities the way polar bears do. Just like our relationship with the Psych Spectrum, we function at multiple points along Emergence Tower simultaneously—as I worded it in Chapter 2, we travel up and down Emergence Tower’s elevator.
Every human phenomenon becomes a little clearer when we look at it in 2D with the help of our Psych Spectrum. And things start to make even more sense when we also consider Emergence Tower. Seeing in 3D allows us to consider both of these ideas simultaneously.
The visuals can get a little complicated here, especially when I’m the graphic designer, but try to bear with me. Emergence Tower is kind of like a z-axis we can flip on its side and add onto our x-y graph:
The Psych Spectrum takes a spectrum of human thought and behavior and turns it into a square—adding Emergence Tower goes a step further and turns the story of humans into a cube.
This is our full “loaf” of human thinking and behavior. And like a loaf of bread, we can cut it into slices.
When we’re focusing on what goes on in our heads, we’re thinking about the very bottom of Emergence Tower—the ground-floor slice—which is the realm of individual psychology. We spent all of Chapter 7 here:
To broaden our vision into 3D, let’s take a super oversimplified example of 500 people living as a community somewhere.
And let’s say those 500 people are divided perfectly into 100 five-person families.
A five-person family is a mini giant. Now let’s imagine that each of those families is part of a small five-family community.
And finally, those 20 communities are all part of the larger 500-person community.
This simple example reminds us how a 500-person community doesn’t just exist as a 500-person giant on the “hundreds of people” slice of the loaf—it permeates the entire part of the loaf below it.
Likewise, that 500-person community is itself a smaller piece of the larger communities, factions, and nations that exist on the slices above it.
To really understand the 500-person community and why it is the way it is, we have to examine each layer of smaller units that make it up and the larger giants that encompass it. To really understand what’s going on with a group of any size, we have to consider how it interacts with all parts of the loaf.
The same goes for understanding individuals. The people within our 500-person community don’t exist as isolated minds. Each person is an individual organism, an “organ” in the mini giant of their family, a piece of tissue in the larger giant of their small community, a cell in the 500-person community giant, and an organelle, molecule, atom, and subatomic particle in the subsequent even larger giants above—all at the same time. Each of those slices plays a role in influencing the thoughts and behavior of the individuals, and in turn, each person plays a small part in influencing the giants they’re a part of.
This only gets more complicated when we move out of simplified hypothetical land and into the real world—where the actual tiers of giants are messy, overlapping, and highly variable.
And the thing is, every entity in the loaf—every couple, family, community, company, university, religious institution, political party, nation, even the species as a whole—is doing its own thing in the other two dimensions. Each of them moves around the first dimension—the What axis—as its thoughts and behavior shift and evolve. And each is in its very own Psych Spectrum struggle along the second dimension.
To make sense of all this, we need to discuss the critical, invisible force that ties all of the loaf’s slices together: culture.
Culture is the collection of unwritten rules, norms, and values around “how we do things here.” Every human environment—from the two-person couples to the 20-person classrooms to the 20,000-person companies—is embedded with its own culture. We can visualize a group’s culture as a kind of gas cloud that fills the room when the group is together.
A human society is a rich tapestry of overlapping and sometimes sharply contradictory cultures, and each of us lives at our own unique cultural intersection.
On the largest scale, we’re all a part of a few vast pan-national cultural clouds—where customs like shaking hands, waving hi, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, card games, sports fandom, and tipping, to name a few, have taken on broadly shared meaning. Each nation is a smaller cloud with its own sub-culture. Americans who believe they have nothing at all in common with certain other Americans are taking for granted the rich set of specific norms, customs, and values they actually share.2
Inside of the broadest cultures are thousands of smaller communities—each with their own cultural vibe that exerts influence on its members. Someone working in a tech startup in the Bay Area is simultaneously living inside of the broad human community, the global Western community, the American community, the U.S. West Coast community, the San Francisco community, the tech industry community, the startup community, the community of their workplace, the community of their college alumni, the community of their extended family, the community of their group of friends, a few other bizarre SF-y situations, and a dozen other communities their particular life happens to be part of (including, if they’re a regular visitor here, the Wait But Why community). Most immediate to each of us are the micro-cultures of our immediate family, closest friends, and romantic relationships. Going against the current of all the larger communities combined tends to be easier than violating the unwritten rules of the most intimate mini cultures in someone’s life.
A culture’s rules, norms, and value systems pertain to a wide spectrum of human experience. A group of friends, for example, has a way they do birthdays, a way they do emojis, a way they do talking behind each other’s backs, a way they do bragging and self-deprecation, a way they do conflict, and so on. They even have a way they do cultural adherence for each area—one group of friends might find it delightful when a certain friend regularly appalls them with their uncharacteristic-for-the-culture bluntness while in another, the same violation might be grounds for dismissal from the community. Some cultures apply pressure to live a certain kind of lifestyle or abide by a particular structure—a culture that shames being single at 30 incentivizes people to be on the lookout for a life partner in their mid-20s, while another one might not apply that pressure at all, driving different behavior.
Living simultaneously in multiple cultures is part of what makes being a human tricky. Do we keep our individual inner values to ourselves and just do our best to match our external behavior to whatever culture we’re currently in a room with? Or do we stay loyal to one particular culture and live by those rules everywhere, even at our social or professional peril? Or do we just go for full authenticity and let our inner values drive our behavior, unaltered, for better or worse? Do we navigate our lives so to seek out external cultures that match our own values and minimize friction? Or do we surround ourselves with a range of conflicting cultures to put some pressure on our inner minds to learn and grow? Whether you consciously realize it or not, you’re making these decisions all the time.
And these decisions matter—because the cultures we spend time in have a major influence over us.
Remember Moochie from Part 1?
The Johnsons drove Moochie’s behavior in a certain direction by adding Snausage rewards and electrocution penalties into his environment. This whole thing:
In Part 2, we looked at how the brutal dictator King Mustache did the same thing by imposing harsh penalties for saying the wrong thing, and how liberal democracies then turned the tables on the Power Games by writing their own set of rules that punished the violation of inalienable rights. We also looked at how free economic markets reward the creation of value with money. These are all the same idea, just with different zaps and treats.
Cultures use incentive systems too. Instead of physical shocks or jail time as penalties, cultures enforce their values with social and psychological punishments like criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracism. Instead of Snausages or money, they use rewards like praise, acceptance, approval, respect, and admiration.
In other words, in a species that collectively never really leaves middle school, cultures determine what kind of behavior makes you cool or uncool. For social creatures like humans—creatures with a big, fat mammoth in their heads—these cultural zaps and treats work just as well as (and often far better than) the more tangible kinds of incentives, helping to align the behavior of people in a group.
Which brings up an important question: why does a particular culture enforce certain values and not others?
Culture, in 2D
In your head, your Higher Mind and Primitive Mind compete for control of your psychology. On the group level, the two minds jostle for control over the group’s culture. When people are around other people, their Primitive and Higher Minds band together with others of their kind in a group-wide power struggle. And like a human’s personality, a group’s culture has a general Psych Spectrum equilibrium it tends to default to.
The psych equilibrium of a culture exerts a vertical pull on the individuals within it—filling each culture with a kind of electrical current.
In higher-minded culture, the pervading values are Higher-Mind driven, making it a positively charged culture that exerts an upward pull on the psyches of their members. The behavior rewarded or zapped by the culture align more with the Higher Mind’s values, and interactions carry a generally high-minded tone, which empowers the Higher Minds of the people within the culture.
In a negatively charged culture, the Primitive Mind is on its home turf. Conversations are pettier, values are more superficial, conformity beats individuality, and things tend to feel a lot like middle school. A culture like this speaks directly to the Primitive Minds in the heads of its members, continually stoking their fires and forcing their marginalized Higher Mind counterparts to swim upstream.
As always, the power struggle exists on a spectrum, not as a binary switch—and cultures, like people, can often be somewhere in the middle. But in groups, where this kind of “coalition” can form, one mind gaining control over the culture is like an extreme home-field advantage in sports. Control over the electrical charge of the air and power over the painful zaps and pleasurable rays that police cultural dissidents is such a leg up that, for the “away team,” it can be very hard to overcome.
Culture, in 3D
So far, we’ve been focusing on the relationship between culture and individuals. In that realm, culture functions as the rules of engagement. But when we move up to higher levels of emergence, where groups of people function like giant organisms, a group’s culture becomes the giant’s personality.
The culture cloud that surrounds us as individuals is, to a giant, a field of energy radiating through its body and coloring the way it thinks and acts.
A giant’s culture also affects how it interacts with the emergence levels above it, as each giant’s prevailing culture determines how it plays with other giants, and which types of other giants it will gravitate towards.
With all of this in our mind, let’s return now to the world of human beliefs.
We spent last chapter thinking about thinking here:
But human thinking, like all things human, happens up and down Emergence Tower—in 3D. Where we are on the Thinking Ladder at any given moment is affected by what’s happening on the emergence slices above us—by the giants we’re a part of, and where they are on the Thinking Ladder.
For the rest of this post, we’ll zoom in on one specific type of culture: intellectual culture. There are all kinds of intellectual cultures out there, but we can slot them into two broad categories:
Idea Labs and Echo Chambers.
When the Higher Mind is in control of a single human’s intellect, the human becomes a high-rung thinker. When a group of Higher Minds band together to take over a group of people’s intellectual culture, they form what we can call an Idea Lab. An Idea Lab is an intellectual culture where high-rung thinking thrives and where it can be done well communally. Idea Lab culture abides by the Higher Mind’s intellectual goals, values, preferences, and tastes, and it sees thinking, ideas, discussion, debate, questions, answers, information, and knowledge through the Higher Mind’s lens. Any size community can be an Idea Lab if the intellectual culture in that community is Idea-Lab-like.
We’re going to take a look at both cultures from two emergence perspectives:
1) The individual level—how the culture affects the individuals within it
2) The group level—how the culture affects the group itself, as a larger-emergence giant
How Idea Labs affect individuals
To a person, a community is kind of like a mini nation, and as a mini nation, an Idea Lab is a lot like a liberal democracy. Both are rooted in values: a typical liberal democracy is premised on Enlightenment values like freedom and equal opportunity; an Idea Lab centers around the Enlightenment values of truth and free expression. A liberal democracy is governed by rules about the way things are done, not the end result—and this binding process is outlined in a constitution. An Idea Lab has a binding process too: the scientific method.
Unlike communities of actual career scientists, most real-world communities don’t exist solely to find truth, so it’s not exactly the literal scientific method happening as much as it’s an intellectual culture that’s scientific-method-esque, generally abiding by the same principles.
This makes an Idea Lab’s cultural point system pretty straightforward—the cool kids do stuff that serves truth, and those who do otherwise are lame. A few examples:
Idea Labs like independent thought. In an Idea Lab, people are more interested in what you have to say if they think your thoughts come from a self-determined place, and they’ll begin to tune you out if they suspect you tend to just repeat what you heard from another source. This is partially because independent thinkers usually respect other independent thinkers and find low-rung dogmatics to be transparent and boring. But it’s also for practical reasons. An independent thinker, regardless of their viewpoints, is an active brain in the room, contributing something original to the system. A dogmatic who simply regurgitates the same viewpoints, without independent critical thought, contributes little.
Idea Labs like intellectual diversity. An Idea Lab is a place of intellectual pluralism. It’s a miniature marketplace of ideas where multiple, varied viewpoints coexist. High-rung thinkers know that intellectual diversity is the key quality that fills a community with the rich collection of idea puzzle pieces needed to find truth. On topics where everyone seems to agree, people in an Idea Lab will have an instinct to prod that consensus with contrarian ideas and to play devil’s advocate. Thoughtful contrarianism is valued because there’s an implicit understanding that the evolution of knowledge works like the evolution of life. Only through mutations does evolution happen. In the natural world, a mutant is a biological weirdo. In an Idea Lab, bold, quirky, contrarian thinkers—intellectual weirdos—are seen as critical innovators in the lab who provide mutant ideas to the community.
Idea Labs respect thinkers who stay close to the humility sweet spot tightrope.
In an Idea Lab, conviction is used sparingly and with caution—because conviction levels in an Idea Lab are used as “degree of certainty” stamps. The more conviction in your voice when you make a claim, the more you’re saying: “You can trust me that this is truth. I’ve already done the hard work to vet this information, and it’s safe to incorporate it into your beliefs without much testing.” For trusted thinkers in an Idea Lab, conviction offers fellow members a beautiful knowledge-acquisition shortcut and saves them the effort and opportunity cost of re-vetting what has already been tested.
I’ve always been a fan of this cartoon that explains what volts, amps, and ohms are.[footnote2]After a thorough and unsuccessful search, this seems to be one of those visuals that’s so widely circulated, it’s hard to find the original source. If anyone knows it, email us and we’ll cite it. UPDATE: A reader sent me this Reddit thread, which suggests that the image was originally part of an instruction booklet for this deeply random product.[/footnote2]
In communities, info flows in a similar way. Amps are info. Volts are conviction. And ohms are skepticism.
In an Idea Lab, this system is geared around letting truth in and keeping bullshit out. In a good trust network, the Skepticism character (i.e. the Belief Bouncer) is able to trust the Conviction character, which can spare everyone a bunch of work. When a proven high-rung thinker expresses info with a lot of conviction umph, the listener will lower the skepticism ohms without thinking too hard about it.
On the other hand, unearned, false conviction is a major no-no in an Idea Lab. Conviction from a trusted source opens a clear path directly into someone’s most sacred intellectual space: their beliefs. And when conviction is used carelessly, it infects those beliefs with misconceptions, slant, and inaccuracies—the Idea Lab’s toxins—like feeding someone food that will make them sick. Super uncool kid thing to do—and the Idea Lab will punish you by lowering your Rung Rating and damaging your reputation, boy-who-cried-wolf style. Getting caught abusing the use of conviction means you lose the ability to believably communicate your degree of certainty when you say something—because people will know you have a spotty history. Now, when you up the volts and express conviction, listeners will take it with a grain of salt, keep the skepticism filter tight, and feel the need to further verify it.
For all the same reasons, humility wins you major respect in an Idea Lab—where “I don’t know” is a very cool thing to say. People in an Idea Lab are high-rung thinkers, so they know that knowledge is hard. They know the world is a foggy, incredibly complex place, and they’re well aware that no single human knows that much about it. So humility is seen as evidence of honesty and self-awareness—evidence that you “get it.” A reputation for humility makes you intellectually powerful in an Idea Lab—because when a typically humble person does express conviction, it carries a ton of meaning and everyone’s ears perk up.
Idea Labs love arguments. Truth is a sacred value in an Idea Lab, and ideas themselves are seen as nothing more than puzzle pieces to be used in its service. Idea Labs treat all beliefs as works-in-progress, and they see an argument as not only fun, competitive, and intellectually stimulating, but also as a useful exercise for everyone involved, because they know you can only get to knowledge by rigorously testing hypotheses. That’s why Idea Labs are cultures of disconfirmation, debate, and argument. These values mean an Idea Lab doubles as a miniature marketplace-of-ideas gauntlet, a place where no idea is safe. In an Idea Lab, ideas are meant to be criticized, not respected; kicked, not coddled. But the aggression never falls on the thinker—arguments are often heated, but they don’t get personal. As a necessary condition of truth finding, people in an Idea Lab are safe to express any viewpoint they want.
Spending time as a citizen of an Idea Lab mini nation—whether it happens at dinners with your spouse, in classroom discussions, in book club get-togethers, in text conversations, on long scrolls down Reddit threads, or anywhere else—makes you smarter. It shows you where the holes in your knowledge are; it grants you access to a network of intellectual trust that floods you with new, accurate information; it introduces you to a variety of perspectives; it teaches you how to effectively judge others’ ideas and claims. It’s a constant intellectual workout that keeps you sharp.
But even more importantly, an Idea Lab helps you fight the good fight in your own head. I don’t care how good a thinker you are, your intellect will always be in an uphill Psych Spectrum battle against gravity. Even if you get good at thinking with your Higher Mind, your Primitive Mind never gives up and is always looking for a loophole—some personal insecurity, some emotional attachment, some lingering psychological baggage from your past—to latch onto as an opportunity to re-hijack the wheel.
No one thinks like pure top-rung Scientists all the time. More often, after a brief stint on the top rung during an especially lucid and humble period, we start to like the new epiphanies we gleaned up there a little too much and we quickly drop down to the Sports Fan rung. And that’s okay. It might even be optimal to be a little over-confident in our intellectual lives. Taking a rooting interest in our ideas—a new philosophy, a new lifestyle choice, a new business strategy—allows us to really give them a try, somewhat liberated from the constant “but are we really sure about this?” nag from the Higher Mind.
The Sports Fan rung alone isn’t a problem—especially since, like cheering fans in a stadium who know deep down that their fandom is a little silly, somewhere behind the fog of a Sports Fan’s confidence is the self-awareness of a still-pretty-present Higher Mind. The problem is that inviting some fog into the equation is a bit like closing your eyes for just another minute or two after you’ve shut your alarm off for good—it’s riskier than it feels. Getting a little attached to or emotional about an idea is a small step away from drifting unconsciously into Unfalsifiable Land and into the oblivion of the intellectual slums down below. We’re programmed by evolution to be terrible thinkers, so we should never get cocky.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a Higher Mind support network, where a bunch of people suffering from a disease—one in which the animal they live in has become fixated on using alcohol to ruin their lives—can get together and help each other fight the good fight. An Idea Lab is the same thing for our intellect—Dogmatics Anonymous.
People in Dogmatics Anonymous keep each other from falling too low down the Thinking Ladder.
The social pressure helps: if it’s considered cool to think with your Higher Mind, you’re more likely to do so.
And the intellectual pressure helps: If the people around you are good enough at thinking to notice when you’re being biased, hypocritical, conveniently gullible, or selectively unempathetic—and if they’re culturally encouraged to call you on it—you’re less likely to keep doing those things or fall into a well of false conviction. In an Idea Lab, the room is usually too well-lit for the Primitive Mind to get away with anything too sneaky.
When you spend enough time in an Idea Lab, humility and self-awareness are inflicted upon you, whether you like it or not. When you float upwards on the Knowledge-Conviction graph, Idea Lab culture pulls you back down to the tightrope.3
Or, depicted far more hilariously: People in an Idea Lab are like this squirrel trying to get to a bird feeder, and Idea lab culture “greases the arrogance pole.”
All of these forces combine together to make an Idea Lab a big magnet on top of our ladder.
And that’s just the benefits of an Idea Lab to the individuals within it. Bringing our attention upwards on Emergence Tower, a community starts to look less like a mini nation of people and more like a single giant organism—and here, we see just how powerful Idea Lab culture can be.
How Idea Labs affect groups
An Idea Lab is a giant, high-rung thinker with super-human intelligence. At its best, it’s the ultimate Scientist. The group’s mini marketplace of ideas is the giant’s brain, with the individual members’ brains as its neurons.
This single, multi-mind thinking system is far superior to its individual members at learning new things and separating truth from fiction. If the mind of a single high-rung thinker is a truth-seeking tool, the mind of an Idea Lab giant is truth-seeking factory.
Instead of a single Attention Bouncer, bound by the limits of his time and the scope of his curiosity, the Idea Lab organism has a team of Attention Bouncers importing information.
Instead of a single Belief Bouncer trying his hardest to judge the accuracy of info, the Idea Lab giant has a squadron of Belief Bouncers at the door of the community’s generally accepted beliefs. In order to make it past the gate, a hypothesis or piece of information has to make it past each of the bouncers. Even if a convincing falsehood succeeds in duping most of the community, all it takes is one person’s Belief Bouncer discovering it to be flawed and they’ll quickly expose it as fraud to everyone else. The beliefs of high-rung thinkers are readily falsifiable—so this is a fast process that leaves the bad information with little hope.
Instead of a single Puzzler working on building hypotheses out of scattered information, the constant hum of discussion in an Idea Lab makes puzzling collaborative. With everyone mostly saying what they’re really thinking, the line between puzzling together a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis in a gauntlet of criticism blurs. When dialectic and debate are core parts of an intellectual culture, new ideas can be tested as they’re being formed, in real-time, making the step-by-step knowledge-building process of the individual high-rung thinker into a single, dynamic process.
As a giant organism, an Idea Lab is an example of emergence at its finest: a system that is far more than the sum of its parts.
The Idea Lab giant is an organism that takes in raw information and converts it into knowledge and wisdom. Its immune system specializes in sorting truth from fiction and rooting out falsehoods and bias—the toxins that threaten the knowledge manufacturing process.
One of the coolest properties of an Idea Lab is its ability to play nicely with other Idea Labs and seamlessly meld together with them into larger Idea Labs. Take the simplest example: two couples.
To continue exploiting the Johnsons from Part 1, let’s imagine that in their marriage, they have formed a strong, high-rung intellectual culture together. When they’re together, they form a tiny Idea Lab—a two-mind system that’s always working on a lifelong, collaborative mission to become a little less wrong and a little less foolish. They disagree about ideas all the time, but their intellectual arguments rarely double as fights. They get heated alongside smiles and jokes and light-hearted jabs at each other. Like any humans, they’re both prone to sink downwards on the ladder, but they keep each other honest, and they both have a history of changing their mind when the other makes a point so good they can’t deny the truth of it—an intellectual “offer they can’t refuse.”
Now, let’s also imagine that they have their next-door neighbors, the Smiths, over for dinner one night.
The Smiths are also an Idea Lab couple. So very quickly, the dinner becomes a rich discourse, full of original ideas and critical thinking, as the four of them seamlessly merge their two-person Idea Labs into a four-person Idea Lab. The dinner table becomes a four-person marketplace of ideas, with double the knowledge, double the intellectual diversity, and double the keen-eyed Bouncers and Puzzlers at their service. The hangout goes on for hours after the food is done, and everyone leaves feeling a little bit smarter than they were before. The two couples, sharing high-rung intellectual values, both end up feeling positive about the experience, as the large amount of critical thinking that happened made the dinner super interesting and fun.
The thing going on here is that Idea Labs are micro-divided, and macro-united. On a micro scale, Idea Labs and the people within them disagree often—that’s the intellectual diversity component.
On a macro scale, all Idea Labs are broadly united by a common set of intellectual values—a shared understanding that they’re all ultimately on the same truth-seeking team.
This allows Idea Labs of all sizes to combine together just as easily as the Johnsons and Smiths did. Two can become four around a dinner table. A six-college-friends Idea Lab can become part of a larger one 50 students strong when those friends walk into one of Bridge USA’s many university clubs dedicated to ideological diversity. High-rung science departments can “team up” with other departments by criticizing each other’s findings.
Even farther up Emergence Tower, every Idea Lab in the U.S. is a tiny piece of the grand American Idea Lab—the U.S. marketplace of ideas—each of them a little pocket of neural tissue in the giant U.S. brain. In the U.S., the joint effort of hundreds of thousands of Idea Labs of all different shapes and sizes generates that big, bright orb of light held by the collective nation’s giant Higher Mind.
The U.S. marketplace of ideas is in turn a lobe of tissue in the largest Idea Lab of all—the uber-giant brain of the collective high-rung thinkers of the human race. Through a worldwide mega-web of different size Idea Labs, each individual high-rung human thinker is able to link into the giant species brain as a single tiny neuron.
Idea Labs can blend together so effortlessly because the only glue needed to tie them together is a simple set of high-rung intellectual values, all centered around a common mission to get closer to the truth.
This is what Thomas Paine was getting at when he said:[footnote2]Letter to the Abbe Raynal, 1782.[/footnote2]
Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. … The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.
Idea Labs are awesome because they’re awesome at every level of emergence.
They’re great at the individual level. Individuality is valued, people are respected, and communities are safe spaces to share whatever ideas you’re thinking about, without fear of negative consequences. An Idea Lab is a good mini nation to be citizen of. Spending time in an Idea Lab makes you smarter, wiser, humbler, more realistic, and helps pull your internal battle upwards.
Idea Labs are great at the community level. The same people encouraged to retain their full individuality at the low-emergence level also get to enjoy the benefits of being a cell in a larger, superintelligent system, with all of the social and community perks that come along with it.
Idea Labs are great at the national and pan-national level. We have Idea Labs to thank for the collective knowledge tower we’ve built as a species, for the evolution of our species’ psychological maturation, and for the development of our growing philosophical clarity.
Perhaps most importantly, Idea Labs bring to fruition a fundamental right:
The Free Speech Puzzle
Given how naturally Idea Lab culture fits into the broader spirit of the U.S. constitution, you might assume that at least Idea Labs would be the norm in a place like the U.S.—but they’re not. The U.S. was a country built to give the underdog Higher Mind a chance, but it wasn’t built to enforce the Higher Mind’s ideals on any citizen. Doing so would violate the core premise of the country: freedom from authoritarian rule. The Constitution puts its citizens in an environment where neither the government, nor other citizens, are allowed to impinge on any citizen’s right to live in a high-minded environment. But like the case with power, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness—the Constitution offers only the opportunity to enjoy the ideals of the Enlightenment, not a guarantee of that kind of life. In the U.S., you’re so free that you’re free to be unfree, if you so choose.
We can apply this to the world of discourse. The reality is that while all Americans are living under the protection of the First Amendment, many aren’t living with freedom of speech. Constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff highlights this distinction:[footnote2]Greg Lukianoff: Freedom From Speech.[/footnote2]
Though often used interchangeably, the concept of freedom of speech and the First Amendment are not the same thing. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press as they relate to duties of the state and state power, freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values. These values incorporate healthy intellectual habits, such as giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right. At the heart of these values is epistemic humility – a fancy way of saying that we must always keep in mind that we could be wrong or, at least, that we can always learn something from listening to the other side.
Free speech, like any Value Games privilege, requires both the government and the culture to be on board. The U.S. Constitution makes free speech possible—but only within the right culture does the freedom come to fruition.
Let’s apply this idea to t-shirts. The Constitution gives all citizens the right to walk around wearing t-shirts in public. As far as we’re concerned, there might as well be a T-Shirt Amendment that protects this right for all citizens (the right to bare arms?). But if I live in a community in which one of the unwritten cultural beliefs is that wearing t-shirts is evil—and anyone who does so will likely be permanently shunned—I’m not gonna walk around in a t-shirt. Sure, the T-Shirt Amendment means that I can’t be imprisoned by the government for wearing a t-shirt—but my entire social life would be destroyed by doing so, which is just a different kind of incredibly harsh penalty. Being deeply invested in a community allows the culture of that community to essentially override my constitutional rights. The actual enjoyment of a constitutional right relies on finding a community who agrees with the Constitution about it.
Likewise, in cultures that impose their own harsh penalties for saying the wrong thing, freedom of speech all but vanishes, along with the presence of the marketplace of ideas. This is why Idea Labs are so important. Idea Labs are fully bought in to the value of free speech—they see it as a constitutional gift and make it a way of life. Idea Lab culture is the critical second piece that completes the free speech puzzle.
If the Idea Lab were the only intellectual culture out there, things in the human world might be simple. But Idea Labs aren’t the only human intellectual culture, because the Higher Mind isn’t the only human mind. Liberal concepts like free speech are thoroughly artificial constructions, and no matter where they exist, they’ll always be the underdog, constantly fighting against the gravity of human nature.
Some people do manage to spend most of our time in the little pockets of Higher-Mind-run cultures that have managed to subsist inside of the broader primitive ocean. But many of us aren’t so lucky. The typical human today, around the world, and inside the U.S., is spending their life inside communities that are culturally charged the old-fashioned way.
Imagine you’ve just had your first baby. Super exciting right?
And every day when you look at your baby, you can’t believe how cute it is.
Babies have a pretty high success rate at being cute. It’s one of the only things they’re talented at.
But the thing is, there’s also that one baby out of every five or six that manages to not pull it off. The Upsetting-Looking Baby. We all know a few.
And I’ve noticed a funny pattern—when I talk to the parents of an Upsetting-Looking Baby, they somehow don’t seem to realize what happened.
The reason is the Primitive Mind is pulling one of its tricks. When you have a baby, your Primitive Mind knows that, cute or upsetting, baby survival is the key to its genetic mission, and it’s critical that you as the parent are fully obsessed with it.
So let’s just say it turns out that your baby looks like this:
You’ll never realize it—because when you look at the baby, your Primitive Mind will quickly flood your head with delusional smoke and make you see what it wants you to see.
This is why everyone thinks their baby is super cute.
But now imagine some friends come over.
A couple’s baby is their most sacred object. And everyone who visits the house knows that—so they go with the flow and confirm the parents’ delusion, fully and unquestionably.
When a culture holds an object to be sacred, the culture becomes embedded with an implicit set of iron-clad social rules about how that object must be treated. Praising the object becomes a very cool thing to do, while saying anything bad about the object is considered an act of unredeemable blasphemy. When something becomes uncriticizable to a culture, the culture becomes the opposite of an Idea Lab about that thing. It becomes an Echo Chamber.
It doesn’t mean the culture is necessarily an Echo Chamber in general—it may be a classic Idea Lab most of the time and simply flip to the other side when the conversation turns to one particular topic. If you’re a sports fan (actual, not metaphorical), you’re well-accustomed to this kind of situation.
Every home that’s populated entirely by lifelong Packers fans is an immediate Echo Chamber when it comes to Packers fandom. They may happily argue about everything else, including Packer-related topics (e.g. “Are they good enough to make the playoffs this year or not?”), but on the specific topic of “who are you rooting for in this game?”, any answer other than “the Packers” is blasphemy. Packers fandom is the sacred baby in the house, and everyone damn well better call it cute.
So why do some objects or ideas become sacred to certain humans and certain cultures?
As we’ve discussed in previous chapters, it often has a lot to do with identity. Every human is an impossibly complex, fluid, ever-evolving unique personality—and to the Higher Mind, that’s more than enough of an identity. But the Primitive Mind doesn’t understand human complexity or uniqueness, so it sees your innermost self as a blank page. A non-identity. For the Primitive Mind to feel secure about your identity, it needs you to attach external things to it—symbols, resources, profession, family name, status, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, nationality, hometown, college alma mater, social group, music tastes—anything really, as long as it’s crisp and clear and tangible enough for its simple programming to grasp.
The Primitive Mind is always hungry to meld you into larger giants, so its favorite kinds of external things to stitch to your identity are those that also stitch you into a group. When an object can help it define both who you are and which tribe you’re in, it latches onto it.
Sports fandom is a classic Primitive Mind identity attachment because it checks a lot of these boxes. It’s crisp and clear. It’s linked together with other identity attachments like hometown and, in the case of something like the World Cup, nationality and even ethnic group. It binds you together with everyone else who likes the same team. There are even uniforms you can wear, painting the good-guy Us colors directly on your body, as you root for them against the bad-guy Them team with their bad-guy Them fans from their bad-guy Them hometown wearing their bad-guy Them colors.
If we didn’t understand the Primitive Mind, we might think it’s a bit odd that a group of out-of-shape people sitting in a living room in sweatpants will scream “We won!” when a bunch of professional athletes they don’t know won a game they had no part in. But to the Primitive Mind, the athletes and the game are just vehicles to do the important thing—bind you together with other people. The Primitive Mind is so well-programmed to bind together with others that using only something as superficial as sports fandom, you can seamlessly become one with a total stranger you know nothing about—like the time at a Red Sox playoff game when I cuddled with a big, scary, mean man I never spoke to before or since.
Which brings me back to our Packer fan family. When the son changed his rooting interest, all he said was, “actually I’m rooting for the Vikings.” But the Primitive Minds of his family members heard a cascade of betrayal, up and down Emergence Tower.
He violated a sacred object—but really, he violated the core sense of unity and safety the Primitive Minds of his family members feel. That’s why a football team became a sacred object in the first place.
But the reason sports fandom isn’t a bad thing is that it (usually) doesn’t harm anybody—it’s a form of fake, role-play tribalism. Jonathan Haidt gets at this when he provides the analogy: “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.”[footnote2]From Haidt’s TED Talk The moral roots of liberals and conservatives[/footnote2] Sports fandom lets humans exercise primitive tribal drives—which you can plainly see every time triumphant fans instinctively throw their arms up like a conquering tribe of apes, or heartbroken fans cover their heads and faces like apes being attacked. But they can exercise these drives without actually going to war. Sports fans, deep down, know the whole thing is just a game, which makes sports a harmless thing to build an Echo Chamber around.
But other Echo Chambers aren’t as harmless.
Echo Chambers become problematic, and even dangerous, when they don’t come along with deep-down self-awareness; when the sacred object is more sacred than the well-being of people; when the tribalism they generate is more like war and less like sports. We often see this kind of Echo Chamber in the worlds of religion, ethnicity, race, nationalism, economics, and, as we’ll get fully into in the next part of this series, politics.
Let’s head back into 3D land and take a closer look.
How Echo Chambers affect individuals
To understand how Echo Chambers work, just think about how Idea Labs work and then imagine the opposite. For example:
Where Idea Labs are cultures of critical thinking and debate, Echo Chambers are cultures of agreement and confirmation.
There are a few reasons for this:
First, it comes from a core distinction between how the two cultures view ideas. Idea Labs see people and their ideas as separate entities—people are meant to be respected, ideas are not. In Echo Chambers, a person’s ideas are part of their identity, so respecting a person and respecting their ideas are one and the same. While people in an Idea lab argue with each other for fun, disagreeing with someone in a culture of agreement is seen as rudeness, and a heated argument about ideas in an Echo Chamber is indistinguishable from a fight. To put a visual to it, Idea Lab culture views agreement and decency as separate, unrelated axes, while Echo Chamber culture views agreement and decency as a single axis:
Second, Echo Chambers are devoted to specific ideas. While the constitution of the Idea Lab mini nation is devoted to a kind of thinking, an Echo Chamber is an idea temple whose constitution is a set of sacred beliefs themselves.
The Idea Lab’s quest for knowledge and truth becomes the Echo Chamber’s quest for confirmation of the community’s sacred story.
Changing the goal from truth-seeking to belief-confirmation flips a bunch of other values to their opposites.
The intellectual diversity of the Idea Lab’s pluralism is a major threat to an Echo Chamber, which replaces it by the intellectual uniformity of purism. For the same reasons, Echo Chambers don’t like intellectual mutants—inconvenient independent thought is frowned upon in an Echo Chamber, where abiding by collective groupthink tends to go over much better.
In assigning Rung Ratings, Echo Chambers are concerned only with what you think, not how you got there, basing judgments not on accuracy but on loyalty to the sacred ideas.
The cultural incentives follow suit. The orange, downward-charged air of an Echo Chamber, like the blue-green, upward-charged air of an Idea Lab, administers rewards of acceptance, approval, and respect, and electroshocks of criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracism—but the criteria for the incentives is almost the exact opposite.
In an Echo Chamber culture, which sees knowledge as easy and obvious, conviction is seen as a sign of knowledge, intelligence, and righteousness (assuming, of course, you have the right viewpoints), and it’s socially rewarded with respect and deference. Humility, on the other hand, is looked down upon in an Echo Chamber, where saying “I don’t know” just makes you sound stupid and ignorant. Changing your mind too much in an Echo Chamber gets you zapped with negative labels, like wishy-washy and flip-flopping and waffling.
An Echo Chamber’s sacred ideas are the community’s newborn baby. And the best way to both express your allegiance to the community and prove your own intellectual and moral worth is to call the baby cute, as fervently as you can. Otherwise known as:
Virtue signaling comes in a few forms:
1) Talking about how cute the baby is (i.e. how correct the community’s sacred beliefs are)
2) Talking about how uncute the rival babies are (i.e. how wrong the community’s ideological opponents are)
3) Talking about how great the community itself is
4) Talking about how awful the rival communities themselves are
So some form of the statement “We are so right / knowledgeable / smart / virtuous and/or They are so wrong / ignorant / stupid / evil.”
Virtue signaling is your Primitive Mind’s way of expressing your sheer Us-ness. While conviction in an Idea Lab expresses your degree of certainty about what you’re saying, conviction in an Echo Chamber expresses the degree of your Us-ness. The baby isn’t kind of cute. It’s not maybe cute. It’s deeply fucking cute. Period.
When a group of people is together expressing their Us-ness at the same time, it not only makes each individual feel safe and loved and accepted and included, it provides a binding energy that unites the group. Participating in one of these sessions—as we all have—showers you with cultural reward, and it feels great in the same way eating Skittles feels great. It’s a classic form of primitive bliss.
Positive incentives go a long way to unifying the Echo Chamber’s viewpoints—but in a community fused together by shared belief, they’re not enough. So they’re coupled with their partner in crime: taboo.
Taboos exist in an Idea Lab, but you have to say something pretty extreme to violate one—and almost always, the offense is an attack on a person, not their idea: a mean-spirited racial slur, a degrading jab, a nasty low-blow. The only way for an otherwise-respected thinker to get culturally zapped by the sole expression of an idea itself is to express a viewpoint so inane that it totally lowers people’s opinion of their intellectual ability.
Echo Chamber Nation, meanwhile, is more like Hypothetica.
In Hypothetica, the dictator, King Mustache, deemed himself to be the country’s sacred newborn baby, and he used his mute button to electrify any sentiments other than calling him tremendously cute.
In a country like the U.S., the harm principle prevents Echo Chamber communities from using physical penalties, so they use taboo as their mute button instead.
Taboo is an Echo Chamber’s censorship electric fence—a police force that slaps members with the social fines of status reduction or reputation damage, the social jail time of ostracism, and even the social execution of permanent excommunication. In your criticisms of the opposing viewpoints and those who hold them, you’re free in an Echo Chamber to be as personal and as vicious as you please—cutting slurs, degrading jabs, and nasty low-blows included. Not only is this kind of expression not considered taboo, it’s a sign of moral and intellectual awesomeness. But disagree with the sacred beliefs and you’ve committed blasphemy in place of worship—and you’ll be promptly electrocuted.
The Idea Lab’s criticism gauntlet, a safe place for people and a dangerous one for ideas, provides a type of resistance that elevates truth and wisdom and pushes the whole entity, along with each of its members, toward intellectual and moral growth. An Echo Chamber’s taboo minefield makes it a safe and protected space for all ideas that confirm the sacred beliefs and a very dangerous space for ideas—and people—that don’t. This type of resistance has the opposite effect, discouraging new ideas and intellectual innovation and repressing the growth of the community and its members.
Of course, both of these make sense, given the cultural objectives. High-rung thinkers want their perception of reality to change and get closer to reality, so they invite the productive kind of resistance. Low-rung thinkers want their perception of reality to remain untouched. They view safety not as safety to speak certain ideas but as safety from hearing certain ideas—making an Idea Lab a place of danger for them. So they invite the repressive kind of resistance.
Liberal democracies were built to be bubbles of free speech in a world of censorship—bubbles where Higher Minds could band together and form high-minded giants, safe from the bullying of the Primitive Mind.
Idea Labs are communities born of this spirit, taking full advantage of the privilege afforded to them by the liberal constitutions. But the Primitive Minds in our heads don’t understand any of this. They run on automated software, unable to see the present day or understand its liberal values. No matter what country they’re in, they want to do what they were programmed to do: play the ancient Power Games by banding together into the old-fashioned kind of giant.
And the thing about Primitive Minds is, as simple and unthinking as they may be, they can also be highly innovative. It’s like what Jeff Goldblum said.
You can put as many constraints on Primitive Minds as you want to, but some of them will usually find a way to get together and play the Power Games. In a country like the U.S., the Echo Chamber is one way they do it. The Echo Chamber is a mini dictatorship—a cultural dictatorship—of Power Games inside of a liberal democracy. A non-free-speech zone inside of a free speech nation.
This kind of mini dictatorship has the opposite effect on its citizens that an Idea Lab has. If an Idea Lab is Dogmatics Anonymous, an Echo Chamber is a dogma keg party.
Some reasons why the dogma keg party sucks:
An Echo Chamber makes you more primitive. Spending time in an environment full of primitive smoke gives the Primitive Mind home-field advantage in the battle inside your head. In an Echo Chamber, people are constantly releasing the human version of wolfpack pheromones—the words they use, the virtue signaling, the in-group / out-group social structure, the binary worldview. This isn’t simply the Primitive Mind’s way of thinking, it’s like gas in the air that ignites our primitive fires. Tribal language is the Primitive Mind’s way of signaling to each other: “Let’s fucking do this. Let’s band together and go to war.” Your Higher Mind is already in a serious uphill battle for sanity—but trying to tame your Primitive Mind in that kind of environment is like trying to get a shark to refrain from eating while surrounding it with the scent of blood.
An Echo Chamber makes you arrogant. On top of the general downward pull on your psyche, an Echo Chamber pulls directly downwards on your intellect. When everyone around you believes humility is for the weak-minded and conviction is a sign of intelligence and righteousness, it’s going to have an effect on you. Even in an Idea Lab culture where humility is the ultimate intellectual virtue, we have a very hard time actually being humble. So when you take away that cultural pressure and apply the reverse pressure, shaming humility—good fucking luck.
At the same time, the strength of your beliefs goes up. In an Idea Lab you’re always being reminded that opposing ideas have validity, that all ideas are flawed, that you and everyone else is prone to bias, and that the world is ridiculously complex. This is like an air jet that blows the fog of delusion out of the environment. In an Echo Chamber, all of those reminders have been filtered out by the system, allowing the fog to grow thick. Members of an Echo Chamber tend to share both an oversimplified conception of the world and an inflated view of their own intellect. When everyone around you shares your delusions, the communal fog strengthens delusion, which allows conviction to rise to laughable levels.
Instead of pulling you toward the Knowledge-Conviction diagonal, the Echo Chamber pulls you upwards into the arrogant zone.
This is why people who spend too much time in an Echo Chamber end up as an intellectual contradiction—holding views that are strongly felt but weakly supported.
An Echo Chamber makes you intellectually helpless. Those who want to become better thinkers will have a hard time in an Echo Chamber, where the constant barrage of confirmation of a single viewpoint, along with the prohibition of dissent and open debate on the sacred topics, removes all the most critical tools of knowledge-acquisition from the environment. It’s an environment where A) people think knowledge is easy, B) accuracy isn’t taken into account for ideas that confirm the dogma, C) honest new hypotheses are rarely being formed, and D) the testing of existing assumptions or new incoming confirmation, through dissent and criticism, is culturally discouraged. A + B + C + D = an environment of imposed ignorance. How could anyone learn real stuff in that environment? They couldn’t.
And when you’ve been ignorant for too long, you don’t just lack knowledge, your learning skills dull. Learning is a skill like anything else—it takes practice—and your ability to think critically atrophies. People who surround themselves by Idea Lab cultures get constant practice at defending their ideas and challenging others. In the Echo Chamber’s safe-from-dissent-space, you remain an amateur, which makes the prospect of trying to migrate from your environment to a more argumentative one incredibly daunting.
An Echo Chamber makes you more of a dick. When the Primitive Mind gets control of your heart, it’ll happily toggle your ability to feel empathy up and down to suit its purposes—and resisting this is all the more difficult in an environment totally isolated from the maligned group, where myths and stereotypes about them permeate every conversation, and where it’s believed that hating the right people is precisely what makes someone a good person. When you come to believe that people outside the Echo Chamber are not worth talking to, it’s easy to forget that they’re full, real people just like you.
An Echo Chamber bullies you into submission. Those who manage to remain self-aware enough to try to improve will be met with the social aspect of the Echo Chamber’s cultural rubric. If you try to step outside the standard groupthink viewpoints, the Echo Chamber will dock your social status, and your likability, and your credibility. Your friends will talk behind your back. Your family will discuss how you’ve changed. Your co-workers will exclude you from happy hour drinks. Your fellow dogmatics have built their identities, their sense of stability, and their self-esteem around the Echo Chamber’s set of delusions—and trying to improve will be subconsciously perceived by others as a personal threat. But since self-awareness is scarce in Echo Chambers, they’ll consciously just think you’re an asshole.
All of this adds up to an Echo Chamber culture being a big, fat magnet at the bottom of the How You Think ladder.
While the pull of an Idea Lab makes you smarter, wiser, and more humble, the Echo Chamber magnet makes you ignorant, arrogant, delusional, unempathetic, and inept. Living your life in an Echo Chamber tastes as good as Skittles…and it’s just as bad for you.
Riding up the emergence elevator, from the world of individuals to the world of giants, we’re reminded why Echo Chambers exist in the first place:
How Echo Chambers affect groups
If an Idea Lab giant looks like this:
An Echo Chamber is more like the old-school kind of giant:
When you think about Echo Chambers not as a collection of individuals, but as a primitive human giant playing the Power Games, all of the Echo Chamber’s odd characteristics make much more sense—in the same way individual ant behavior makes the most sense when you zoom out and look at how the colony works as a whole. Revisiting the above Echo Chamber qualities from the giant organism perspective helps us see them in a new light.
To survive, a giant needs to be glued together well, and the Echo Chamber is glued together by a shared set of beliefs. While an Idea Lab draws its strength from its intellectual diversity, the Echo Chamber thrives on intellectual uniformity:
The multi-colored brain network in an Idea Lab is a marketplace of ideas that functions as a super-brain—a giant, superintelligent thinking machine. But the Echo Chamber’s network isn’t a giant brain at all. It’s a solid-colored agreement network—a bloc of hijacked brains, tightly glued together by shared beliefs in order to generate brute strength in numbers.
For a giant glued together by shared beliefs, confirmation of those beliefs are like the giant’s food—the giant relies on a steady incoming stream of confirmation for sustenance and strength. So Echo Chambers are factories that specialize in confirmation manufacture.
The Echo Chamber’s collective Attention Bouncers scour the world for bright red information cherries that support the giant’s core beliefs—anything that helps promote the “We are so right / knowledgeable / smart / virtuous and They are so wrong / ignorant / stupid / evil” manifesto. The standards for confirmation cherries aren’t high—it can be random anecdotes or statistics, strongly worded opinions, out-of-context quotes, whatever. It’s not important whether the confirmation is true or something that would pass for confirmation outside the Echo Chamber—most people in an Echo Chamber already believe, and all they need from confirmation is a nice continual flow to keep morale high and the belief glue at full strength.
Social pressure in an Echo Chamber plays its role, lining up with the main mission. Expressing confirmation is socially rewarded in an Echo Chamber, so the giant’s circulatory system—the communication network—ends up flooded with the very ripest confirmation cherries. When new, juicy nuggets of dogma-supporting info are discovered, they spread through the system like wildfire. The confirmation factory is also great at twisting the less bright cherries to make them better—through a game of telephone, one person’s somewhat-relevant anecdote can quickly morph into a confirmed, undeniable fact about the world that members treat as further scientific proof that the sacred baby is obese and adorable. This is its own kind of market that pushes the best supporting arguments—real or manufactured—straight into the beliefs of the Echo Chamber’s members, since the Belief Bouncers of low-rung thinkers usually give an immediate free pass to friendly, confirming information.
If the Idea Lab giant is the ultimate Scientist, the Echo Chamber is the ultimate Zealot. And like any zealot, an Echo Chamber relies not just on belief but on full conviction. An Echo Chamber’s conviction isn’t just a trademark quality of the Echo Chamber giant—it’s the giant’s lifeblood.
But strength that relies on conviction is brittle, and vulnerable. In many cases, the conviction of many Echo Chamber members is entirely sourced in their trust in other members’ conviction, many of whose conviction is derived from the conviction of others still. It’s like a conviction Ponzi Scheme. In reality, the Echo Chamber’s dogma baby isn’t usually very cute at all, and the fervent belief that it is relies on the complete absence of questioning or real discussion about it. For a giant that relies on conviction to survive, doubt is deadly.
In an Idea Lab, people know that the information stream entering the system will be full of toxins—deceptions, slant, falsehoods, bullshit surveys and studies, cherry-picked research, misleading statistics, etc.—and there needs to be a strong immune system to keep their body of knowledge healthy. Their immune system is the idea gauntlet with its culture of dissent and disconfirmation. Information and suppositions that manage to make it through the gauntlet are very likely to be non-toxic—and the continual re-examination of the Idea Lab’s accepted assumptions help to root out toxins that somehow slipped by.
An Echo Chamber works the opposite way. The Idea Lab’s toxin—bias and misconception—is the Echo Chamber’s immune system. The Idea Lab’s immune system—doubt and dissent—is precisely the Echo Chamber’s toxin. Each immune system is made of that which the other immune system is built to guard against.
For an Echo Chamber giant, doubt that threatens to infiltrate the system from the outside, where it can catch on and spread, is like a deadly virus. So the Echo Chamber’s immune system is a multi-layered filter system that leaves little to chance. To successfully generate doubt in an Echo Chamber’s neurons, dissent has to first make it past the cherry-picking filter. Then it has to survive the filter that specializes in misinterpreting, distorting, and re-framing inconvenient info (or, if all that fails, discrediting the source). Dissent that makes it this far has to figure out a way to spread through a social network that punishes members for sharing it. Finally, when the occasional devastating stat or damning news story or well-reasoned dissenting op-ed does manage to reach the minds of Echo Chamber members, there’s a last line of defense—denial. Most Echo Chamber members are low-rung thinkers, which means they’re unfalsifiable—they enforce Echo Chamber rules inside their own heads, and their cognitive biases provide the final blockade.
But even with an airtight immune system in place to thwart invasion by doubt viruses, the Echo Chamber is vulnerable to an internal threat. H. L. Menken said, “The most dangerous man to any government is a man who is able to think things out for himself, and without regard for the prevailing superstitions and taboos.” Same story for Echo Chambers. In addition to the large number of Attorneys and Zealots who believe every part of the dogma, there are some people in every Echo Chamber who don’t actually believe the dogma—just like there are some people who visit new parents who are well aware that the baby isn’t actually cute. These are the most dangerous people to an Echo Chamber, because as trusted members of the Us group, dissent from their mouths can circumvent the immune system and trigger dangerous cognitive dissonance in fellow members. If dissent from the outside threatens to become a doubt virus in the body of the Echo Chamber giant, dissent from the inside threatens to become a doubt cancer. This is why Echo Chambers go beyond making it uncool to express unpopular ideas and make it taboo. Cancer must be nipped at the bud.
This is the kind of intense information control you see when reality is not your friend—when ideological purity is a survival requirement.
When we look at how giants interact with other giants, we see a final distinction between Idea Labs and Echo Chambers. As we discussed earlier, Idea Labs merge seamlessly together with other Idea Labs, because while micro-divided in their viewpoints, they’re macro-united by common values like civility and truth. Echo Chambers, as expected, are the reverse—micro-united in their viewpoints, macro-divided with other communities who don’t share those viewpoints.
Since Echo Chambers are built on agreement, they can only merge with other communities who are like-minded.
Take the Millers.
The Millers are an Echo Chamber-y couple. When they were on the dating scene, both of them judged potential suitors based on like-mindedness, and their closeness as a couple is based on how much they agree on. Today, there’s a long list of viewpoints that, if expressed by one member, would cause a huge fight. In their social life, they judge things the same way—they seek out like-minded friends and see those who disagree with them as assholes and idiots.
Of course, all people bond with others over shared viewpoints—but for the Millers, it’s the only way bonding happens. When they have new potential friends over for dinner, the more agreement that happens at the table—especially around the ideas the Millers hold most sacred, like politics and child-rearing—the more they’ll like the new friends and pursue them as long-term companions. Get-togethers at their house end up feeling very different from the Johnson-Smith dinner we observed earlier.
For Echo Chamber couples, it’s pretty easy to keep things glued tightly together. But as Echo Chambers grow in size, it becomes a greater challenge to hold them together by shared ideas—so usually, the binding beliefs are honed down and simplified to the common denominator ideas that the whole community can get behind. So while Idea Labs get even smarter and more nuanced as they grow, growing Echo Chambers become even dumber and more sure of themselves.
Remember the “me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousins; me, my brother, and my cousins against the stranger” cartoon from Part 1 of this series? Hatred or fear of a common enemy—an opposing group of people or ideas—is often the common denominator that unites large Echo Chambers. Without a prominent Them foil, an Echo Chamber’s Us is liable to split into rival Us/Them factions. So Echo Chambers don’t usually combine all the way up to the nationwide or species-wide level the way Idea Labs do—they grow until they hit a stable two-rival situation (think political parties or economic paradigms, to name two obvious examples). The hatred/fear mechanism to unite otherwise-divided Echo Chambers means that growing Echo Chamber coalitions don’t only get more ignorant—they get meaner and scarier.
Earlier, I said that Idea Labs are awesome because they’re awesome at every level of emergence. Well Echo Chambers suck—because they suck at every level of emergence.
At the individual level, they repress free speech with a minefield of taboos, hinder learning and growth, and foster delusional arrogance. As mini nations, they’re more like old school dictatorships than constitutional democracies, and they pull their citizens downward on the Psych Spectrum.
At the community level, Echo Chambers are more than the sum of their parts only in raw power. Intellectually, the Echo Chamber giant is less capable of finding truth than a single independent thinker.
And at the national and pan-national level, we can thank Echo Chamber coalitions for fun parts of our history like war, oppression, bigotry, and genocide. The grand, species-wide Idea Lab is why we’ve made progress. Giant Echo Chambers are why that progress hasn’t happened a lot faster.
All of us are living in at least a few Echo Chambers right now. To discover the Echo Chambers in your life, think about the different communities you’re a part of, and ask, “Is there a sacred baby in the room when I’m with those people? Are there ideas or viewpoints that are socially off-limits?”
Here’s one other trick:
The Asshole Litmus Test
I’m a long-time fan of Randall Munroe and his always-delightful site xkcd. But I have a quibble with one particular xkcd comic:
What Randall’s trying to do here is put an end to people claiming that their First Amendment rights are being violated when in fact, they’re not.4 And the comic does a good job at that. My problem with the comic is that it doesn’t address the difference between the two kinds of intellectual cultures we’ve discussed—and as such, it serves as perfect justification for both the Idea Lab and the Echo Chamber.
For me, the critical word in the comic is “asshole.” Both kinds of intellectual culture agree with the comic—what they disagree on is the definition of asshole.
Communities that define asshole as “someone who in arguments attacks people, not ideas,” or “someone who expresses conviction on viewpoints where they don’t actually know very much,” or “someone who never admits when they’re wrong” are Idea Labs. They eject from the club those who turn arguments into fights and hinder the community’s ability to search for truth.
On the other hand, communities that define asshole as “someone who disagrees with what the community believes,” or “someone who holds views that we find offensive,” or “someone who criticizes the community or defends our rival community” are Echo Chambers. By “showing the door” to anyone who doesn’t say their baby is cute, they purge their community of dissent and ensure that things remain intellectually pure.
The xkcd comic is a comic about intolerance—but the key question it leaves open is: intolerance of what? When you consider your own judgments and those within your communities, think about the criteria for intolerance. Ask yourself: How exactly is “asshole” being defined?
Liberal Democracy: Cultural Coexistence
This is a post series about both psychology and sociology, because to understand what’s going on in the world around us, we need to think about both. If we view humanity in 3D, we see that psychology and sociology are really studies of the same human system, just from different vantage points along Emergence Tower.
What Idea Labs and Echo Chambers show us is that the Higher Mind – Primitive Mind tension isn’t just happening in each of our heads—it’s raging up and down Emergence Tower, at the heart of both our psychology and sociology. It’s a 3D struggle.
This 3D struggle is the backstory behind human history and behind everything going on in our world today. It can also help us understand why the U.S. forefathers designed the system the way they did.
The key innovation in a country like the U.S. isn’t to force higher-minded cultures and free speech upon anyone—it’s to allow people and communities to be whoever they want to be, in peace. The important thing is that membership in any community or culture, including a mini dictatorship, is purely voluntary. If the only threat zealots have is to kick you out of their social circle—to “show you the door”—higher-minded people are free in a liberal democracy to say, “goodbye!” and head elsewhere. That’s liberal democracy’s secret sauce.
In countries like the U.S., Idea Labs and Echo Chambers coexist. Echo Chambers may slow down the country’s progress—but they can’t forcefully hijack the whole system like they do in the Power Games. Whether the Echo Chambers like it or not (and they usually don’t), a liberal democracy’s Idea Labs, with enough tenacity, can continue to power their country’s slow, steady forward march of progress.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Remember the words of a wise man, Jeff Goldblum. Life finds a way. Liberal democracies do a great job of capping the power of the Primitive Mind and even harnessing that power as an engine of progress. But like an animal in a cage, the Primitive Mind yearns for its natural habitat—the Power Games. And even the best system isn’t infallible.
I look around the U.S. and other parts of the world today and I worry that something is off—that in the chaos of rapid advances in technology and media, our worst tendencies may be quietly breaking free. In the next part of this series, we’ll hold our noses and dive into everybody’s favorite topic: politics. If we can look out at the world around us and see it in 3D, we might just be able to figure out what’s really going on.
Chapter 9: Political Disney World
To keep up with this series, sign up for the Wait But Why email list and we’ll send you the new posts right when they come out. It’s a super unannoying list I promise.
Huge thanks to our Patreon supporters for making this series free for everyone. To support Wait But Why, visit our Patreon page.
Three places to go next:
Some thoughts on how to pick a life partner (pro tip: go for someone you can disagree with)
The social world has a whole set of other problems: 16 comics about awkward social interactions
In case we’re all getting a little self-absorbed with humans here: 4 mind-blowing things about stars
I’m reminded of this whenever I’m in a faraway country and I run into another traveling American. There’s usually an immediate understanding of each other—one that we would never appreciate if we interacted back at home.↩
As a writer, I’m grateful to have an audience who lets me know how they feel—it magnetizes my humility tightrope. I can literally feel myself being humbled down to the tightrope by criticism when I drift too high, and I can feel myself being lifted up to the tightrope by positive feedback when I’m feeling insecure.↩