When Bubbles Burst

It takes a leader to recognize the perils of bubbles of groupthink, misinformation, and failure and move with those they are leading towards a bubble of collaboration, understanding, and success. 

Willie Santana[i]
Assistant Public Defender
Third Judicial District of Tennessee

Our society has become defined by the bubbles surrounding everyone.  After a recent dance lesson, my daughter and I discussed the concept of the protective social bubble that is the feature of the coronavirus pandemic.  I visualized these social bubbles for my daughter as three-dimensional Venn diagrams.  Each of us stands in the middle and is exposed to the same extent as all the bubbles that overlap on us: spouses, friends, co-workers, et cetera.  Understanding that idea is key to maintaining some sense of normalcy in abnormal times. That bubble is protective.  In some ways, society itself is a string of intersecting bubbles people form to achieve common goals.  

On January 6, the world saw that not all bubbles are protective, or more specifically, protect bad ideas grounded in fabricated facts.  Most of us watched in horror as a bubble of misinformation and anger burst, releasing violence and fear.  We witnessed the result of humoring anti-intellectualism to the point that some individuals substituted convenient lies for facts. The consequences of this phenomenon are not limited to the political arena.  Indeed, the resulting false beliefs range from silly to dangerous.  On the silly end of the spectrum, we have people who question the Earth’s roundness.  On the dangerous end, we have the belief that the COVID-19 vaccine will re-write a person’s DNA or contain a microchip for government or corporate surveillance.  Thus, some information bubbles are counterproductive and dangerous.  These information bubbles are echo-chambers that allow our worst instincts to be reflected upon themselves and amplified.

As leaders, we must be aware of these bubbles.  First, we must be aware of these bubbles to recognize when we are inside one.  Self-awareness is often cited as a key characteristic of effective leaders.  A key role of a leader is engaging in creative problem solving and decision making.  In order to make good individual or collective decisions, leaders must have an adequate understanding of the problem and its possible solutions.  A leader in an information bubble has neither.  The outcomes of decisions made by that leader are narrow and predictable.  Think of the decades-long bubble of what we now know to be misinformation created by the tobacco industry and the terrible reality it has meant for individuals, families, the companies they work for, and the communities in which they live.  Effective leaders must not only recognize that they are in an information bubble, but they must also recognize when those they lead or collaborate with are inside it with them.  Leaders must also know how to best assist others in recognizing the peril of operating in such environments. 

As a lawyer, I tend to look at leadership problems from a legal and social perspective, but I also have a background in business that can shed some light on the problem of misinformation.  I studied organizational and management psychology, which has identified a psychological phenomenon known as groupthink.  Groupthink shares many of the same pressures and qualities as misinformation bubbles.  Groupthink is a way of  “thinking in which individual members of […] groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not [they] believe it to be [the right decision].”  After thorough study, research found that groupthink generally takes place in groups with strong leaders, in situations with cohesive pressure, and where a desire for a favorable outcome is strong.  Groupthink results in an illusion of invincibility, rampant rationalizations, skewed moral and ethical perspectives, scapegoating, and self-censorship among other negative social consequences. 

Although the groupthink model does not perfectly apply to information bubbles, the lessons we have learned in preventing and combating groupthink can give us insight into effectively leading our organizations, peers, and social groups out of these misinformation bubbles.  Some of the techniques used in preventing and combating groupthink should have similar effects on misinformation bubbles.  First, leaders “should keep in mind that their opinions carry a social weight, even when this is not their desire [and should proactively] create space for other opinions.”  In other words, a leader’s words and actions matter.  Leaders, out of humility or ignorance, often underestimate our influence over those we lead and collaborate with and we must not become part of the problem.  Another effective way to avoid groupthink is to encourage and embrace diversity in all its forms.  Recent research suggests the “mere presence of diversity in a group” leads to better decision making.  Lawyer leaders should be especially sensitive to diversity as our profession is “the least diverse profession” in the United States.  One of the driving forces for groupthink is cohesive pressure to conform.  That pressure is more likely to exist in environments lacking diversity.  Put in a different way, diversity disrupts some of the cohesive pressure that homogeneity tends to foment.  Likewise, diversity naturally increases the quantity of information because individuals from different backgrounds tend to approach problems from divergent perspectives.  Finally, leaders should know, understand, and promote awareness of groupthink and information bubbles, as well as their causes, and their effects.  The best remedy for misinformation is, sometimes, correct information.  No one wants to engage in groupthink or get caught in an information bubble, but the nature of those mental states is self-reinforcing.  It takes a leader to recognize the perils of bubbles of groupthink, misinformation, and failure and move with those they are leading towards a bubble of collaboration, understanding, and success. 

[i] Willie Santana is an Assistant Public Defender in the Third Judicial District of Tennessee, a 2014 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, and served as managing editor of the Tennessee Journal of Law & Policy

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