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Posts Tagged ‘echo chamber’

Or, you know, the jeans.

What got me thinking today was word of a new study suggesting that one of the reasons we birds of a feather flock together could be more than a common interest in flying south.  It turns out, there’s often genetic similarity in the folks we choose as friends. As in: we may be genetically predisposed to like the stuff we like — and choose our friends accordingly — a phenomenon that keeps us trapped in our own private “us group”.

Clearly, this can’t always end well.

In the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors addressed the fact that people disposed to alcoholism befriend folks who like to drink.  Not a surprise:  you like to throw down a few cocktails, you tend to hang out with those who like them, too.  But here’s the interesting thing.  Apart from the social behavior, when the researchers analyzed genetic traits, they found that long before the future drinkers even began to raid their parent’s liquor cabinet, they tended to choose friends who shared the same genetic predisposition:

For example, a person with a genotype that makes her susceptible to alcoholism may be directly influenced to drink. However, she may also be indirectly influenced to drink because she chooses friends with the same genotype (homophily)who are more likely to make alcohol available to her.

Okay, words like genotype and homophily make us want to reach for the Pinot.  So let’s go over to Time.com, which referred to the phenomenon as “Friends with (Genetic) Benefits.”  In that post, James Fowler, one of the study’s authors, told Time that we might choose our friends not only because we share the same interests — but because we might have some similar DNA:

The [genetic link to alcoholism] makes sense, says Fowler, since it’s true that “if I’m more impulsive, I might choose to be with friends with others who are more impulsive.” Another way that such a gene might affect friendship is that impulsive people might be drawn to the same types of environments—for example, amusement parks— and tend to make friends with others they find there. Not surprisingly, a kid who sneaks beer and cigarettes in the high school parking lot and drag races on weekends is unlikely to befriend the guy who spends all his time with the chess club.

Not surprising, right?  But, says Fowler:

“There can be a feedback effect. We know that [this gene] shows an association with alcoholism. Now the evidence here is that if you have this gene, your friends are more likely to have it. You’re not only susceptible biologically to this behavior, you’re also more likely to be surrounded by people who are susceptible to this behavior.”

And there you go.  You’re destined to drink too much, you gravitate towards those eventually who will, too.   Next thing you know, Leaving Las Vegas.  But let’s leave the lab (and the bar) behind and extrapolate a little, about what happens when we’re stuck in bubbles of our own making.   Genomes notwithstanding, unless we watch out, do we still surround ourselves with those who like what we like, drink what we drink, and dress like we do?  You get the picture. Skinny jeans, anyone?  Yes, please.
In a way, this bubble business smacks of  the tyranny of the echo chamber, which can be its own kind of trap.   We wrote about this before, riffing on a piece in Marie Claire by Lori Gottlieb (of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) that suggested that girlfriends often serve as one another’s “yes women”.  Our point was this:  When we surround ourselves with people like us, such as those likely to tell us what we want to hear, can we ever really figure out for ourselves what we want to do with our lives (or for that matter,  even what to wear to class?)  As we wrote last summer:

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.

As we wrote before, where it all gets dicey is when our bubble, like the echo chamber, becomes the norm.  When we are surrounded by folks who are just like us, who think like us, who dress like us, and who tell us what we want to hear, how hard is it to make a decision that doesn’t follow what’s predesigned, that doesn’t conform — and to be happy with that decision if we do?  Are we ever able to trust our gut?  Break from the pack?



Which leads us back to that genome study.   I’m not sure that I buy this stuff about our friendships — and our behavior — being completely predetermined by our DNA.   But I do know this.  When we’re stuck in a bubble, of our own making or not, it’s pretty hard to figure out for ourselves who we really are, what we want to do with our lives (we wrote a whole book about this) or even what we wear.   Yep, most days you’ll find me in my skinny jeans.  But what I really like are my flares.
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Is this the trouble with girlfriends?  They tell us what we want to hear?

That’s what controversial writer Lori Gottlieb (she of “Marry Him: The case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) suggests in a piece in the July issue of Marie Claire that I came across the other day.   She’s writing mainly about bad boyfriends and dating dilemmas (that is, after all, her shtick), but some of what she says applies to other issues, too.   Such as what to do with our lives.  (Full disclosure:  Gottlieb was gracious enough to give us an insightful interview for our book.)

She starts the piece by referencing SATC, not at all favorably.  But if you can get beyond the dig at Samantha, head down to the boldface (mine) at the end of the graf.  That’s where the truth hangs out:

Remember the scene at the end of the first Sex and the City movie, when the fabulous foursome was sitting down to cocktails? Samantha had just left Smith, her gorgeous, adoring boyfriend — whom she loved and who had lovingly supported her through breast cancer — because “I love myself more.” That’s right: She dumped a keeper using what was arguably the most idiotic grrrl-power proclamation in the history of chick flicks (and there’s some formidable competition there). And how did the gals react? They toasted her! As always, the bobble-headed brunch mates unquestioningly took her side. And something dawned on me: This is exactly how I am with my friends (minus, perhaps, the four-figure handbags). Just like the girls did in every episode of SATC — and in the new film, currently luring Miatas-ful of women to theaters like well-shod moths to a flame — we cheer each other on, thinking we’re being supportive, when often we’re just enabling bad choices. To put it plainly, we’re one another’s yes women.

One another’s yes womenEnablers? Ouch.  But there it is.  In our efforts to be supportive, sympathetic and sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice to our girlfriends, do we get caught up telling our besties only what we think they want to hear?  Are we reluctant to tell the truth if it means we might lose a friend? And do we seek out friends who will serve as our personal echo chambers, who cross over that thin line that divides support from enabling?

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.
And about that tough love?  We’re probably as afraid to give it as to get it.

This may be a silly example, but when was the last time you told a friend that, um, she looks bad in green?  Or continued to hang out with someone who would say as much to you?  Even if you really do, you know, look like shit in green.  But let’s get back to Gottlieb, who puts herself in the picture:

I’ve always enjoyed the unconditional support of my female friends. Life can be a rough ride, and I count on that cheerleading squad when things get me down. But for women, a bit of consolation can balloon into a complex system of chronic ego-inflation. Was the lawyer boyfriend who didn’t call me for a daily check-in when in court “too into his career,” even though he was really attentive the rest of the time? Probably not. But I heard a round of hurrahs from my friends when I broke it off. And the next guy I dated, who never responded to my e-mails, was he secretly gay? “Yes!” shouted my book group, practically in unison. Look at you, they said, successful, smart, and cute! He must be gay. We “yes” our friends into false presumptions and bad decisions — tell your demanding boss off! Buy the $700 Alexander Wang stilettos; you’ll wear them everywhere! — convincing one another that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong because, according to those who know us best, we’re always right. But instead of a frenzied pack of enablers nurturing our self-delusion, what we need is someone brave enough to give us the truth.

Clearly, this girlfriend stuff goes beyond shoes or boyfriends, and that’s where it all gets truly dicey.  Because with larger decisions this echo chamber business can do some significant damage to our ability to choose for ourselves — and feel comfortable with our decisions when we do.  If we surround ourselves with friends who tell us what we want to hear, who validate our every choice, what then?    Do we ever learn to think critically about our own decisions?  Trust our own guts?  Decide what to do with our lives without looking outside for someone to say, “You go, girl!”  And do we automatically disregard anyone brave enough to play the devil’s advocate?  It’s like faux-empowerment.  We tend to believe what we hear — and yeah, it might be what we really need to hear to pull our chin off the ground — but what we’re left with if we don’t watch out is the idea that we are so goddamn fabulous, so absolutely right, that we deserve nothing short of perfect.  And that, dear reader, is something that almost never ends well.

Not coincidentally, I keep thinking of that classic Jack Nicholson snarl from “A Few Good Men”:  “You can’t handle the truth!”   Well, you know what? Maybe we could, if we got used to hearing it more often.

In other words, tell us what you think.  As opposed to what you think we want to hear.

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