Friday, September 11, 2020

Three Mountains... and the Echo Chambers We Live In

Three things to get out of the way as I start: 
  1. The picture here is of the Three Sisters in Alberta, Canada... and has very little to do with the rest of this post. I just think it's pretty. And it has three mountains.
  2. Anything I'm about to say about Jean Piaget and educational psychology must be filtered through the fact that I took my last Ed Psych course in seminary back in 1988. 
  3. Okay... two things.
Over the years, I've often referred to the Three Mountain Problem (one of Piaget's more famous experiments) in my speaking and teaching as a pastor. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling over how it applies to the way so many folks interact with journalism, conspiracy theories, and the never-ending torrent of memes and hot takes that is social media.

The Three Mountain Problem is pretty simple... simple enough that Wikipedia does a rather nice job of explaining it:

Piaget's aim in the Three Mountain Problem was to investigate egocentrism in children's thinking. The original setup for the task was:

The child is seated at a table where a model of three mountains is presented in front. The mountains were of different sizes, and they had different identifiers (one mountain had snow; one had a red cross on top; one had a hut on top). The child was allowed to do a 360 surveillance of the model. Upon having a good look at the model, a doll is placed at different vantage points relative to the child, and the child is shown 10 photographs. The child is to select which of the 10 photographs best reflects the doll's view. Children of different ages were tested using this task to determine the age at which children begin to 'decenter,' or take the perspective of others.
For a long time, I've used this experiment as an example to talk about emotional maturity in counseling people (especially premarital counseling for couples). I believe that one of the keys to healthy relationships (romantic or not) is the ability to see life from other people's perspective - whether or not you agree with them. The ability to listen and understand a different viewpoint than your own increases your empathy, widens your knowledge of the world, and builds meaningful connections.

On the other hand, the inability to see the perspective of others is a major roadblock to growth and change in any kind of relationship... or group. Many of us have attended work meetings with a key leader who couldn't hear anyone else's constructive input due to the siren call of his own particular understanding of the situation. We've witnessed politicians talking past each other, entrenched in their narrow definition of terms and relevant data. 

Which brings me to my point - how much harder is it for us to 'decenter', to take in different perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions, when we have a crowd of people standing behind us, whispering (or shouting) in our ear that our take is the only correct one?

This is the curse of the media echo chambers that we live in unless we strive desperately to bridge the gaps. Our circle of friends on social media are likely to watch the same news outlets, read the same websites, forward the same memes... and that means our attempts to understand why someone believes/votes/supports/thinks something different is exponentially more difficult.

'Decentering' - listening to others with respect and an attempt to understand - does not mean you have to change your mind. But it does mean that you follow the Biblical prescription:
Let everyone be quick to hear [be a careful, thoughtful listener], slow to speak [a speaker of carefully chosen words and], slow to anger [patient, reflective, forgiving]... 

James 1:19 (AMP)

I'll write more later on how I think this directly impacts evangelism and discipleship for followers of Christ - but I took that out of this post in order to focus on the echo chamber application.

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