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Letting Your Opinions Define You

Letting Your Opinions Define You

All of us have opinions. We are entitled to them, naturally. However I see far too many people who allow opinions to define them.

After all, what is an opinion? Well there are opinions that are based on personal taste of course. Liking a particular type of music or having a favourite  sport for example. When it comes to sport, I don’t get soccer. I don’t get why so many people love it. However, it doesn’t really affect me if other people want to watch paint dry.

Then there are opinions based on information you have received that you consider to be correct. Now this is where people allow opinions to define them. What I mean is that once they have absorbed this information and developed an opinion on something, the die is then cast.

For some reason some people decide that once they have made up their mind on something, that’s that. at this point, these people’s minds are closed to new information.

I don’t get that. You made up your mind based on the information available to you at the time, and also how you viewed the world at that time. So why, if new information that contradicts what you have believed for some time is presented to you, would you not just change your opinion?

Why indeed? It appears that for some people, to change an opinion on something is to admit that you have have been wrong all the time you have held the opinion. Strange but true; people don’t like to admit that they are or have been wrong.

I have a relative like that. She has held some opinions now for many years. It is worthless to try to provide her with new information because she simply discards it. It doesn’t fit with her world view, so the information has to be ignored. It’s simple confirmation bias. Anything that agrees with your world is welcomed. Anything that challenges it is ignored.

When I research about health I am constantly flummoxed by the conflicting information you have to wade through to get to anything resembling the truth.

Imagine this scenario and you can understand why this may be the case. You are for example a nutritionist and you have been telling people for 30 years to not eat more than one egg a week because they raise cholesterol. Then some PhD student comes along and does a study that says body cholesterol is self regulating and not really affected by eggs; that in fact eating an egg a day is fine and actually very good for you. How embarrassing is that? You can’t swallow your pride, so instead you rant to fellow middle aged nutritionist about what would those young upstarts know? I’ve been in this field since before they were born!

I personally am bemused by this. Why? because I don’t have any opinions that I allow to define me. An opinion doesn’t become part of who I am. As I have said, it is just a point of view based on the best information I had at the time. If I then receive better information, my opinion is updated. No big deal to me.

However I shouldn’t be bemused. The latest research on our decision making ability is that, by an accident of evolution, the same part of the brain that handles decision making also handles our emotions. In practical terms what this usually means is that when we think we are being rational, we are usually not. What we are usually doing is deciding something on an emotional basis, then rationalising why we believe it.

The funny thing is that usually opinions are formed when people are young, when they uncritically accept the opinions of others. They take those opinions on board, then make them their own, even though they don’t have a good reason for the opinion in the first place.

Problem is, just because you believe something, or don’t believe something, doesn’t make you correct. If you have believed something for 30 years and you are wrong, you’re still wrong whether you accept that you are wrong or not.

If you believe that climate change is a lie for example, because of what shills for the fossil fuel industry have led you to believe, if it is in fact happening, you will still suffer whatever the consequences of climate change are.

If you believe in an afterlife, and there isn’t one, then there isn’t. I know it would be nice, and I am, like just about everybody, still hopeful. But believing it doesn’t make it so.

If you believe something and you are wrong, you are wrong, full stop. No ifs, no buts. Nothing matters. If a billion people believe the same thing as you, you can all still be wrong. In fact that is a specific logical fallacy – the appeal to popularity.

So why do I write this? Because now, more than ever the world needs self aware people to combat the ignorant. The first step towards self awareness is to question your beliefs, asking yourself does this belief serve you or not. Ask yourself why you believe it. Do you believe it because someone you respect told you it? Do you hold onto beliefs simply because you have held them for a long time? Do hold onto beliefs that may be  incorrect because of pride and stubborn refusal to admit you could be wrong?

Changing your mind doesn’t make you look foolish. Stubbornly clinging to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary does.

For more on confirmation bias, this guy does a great piece on it, including this great quote from Tolstoy which sums up what I have said nicely:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

 

Image Source: Cornell University Library – Public Opinion — April 22, 1874, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44004791

About The Author

Shaun

A guy obsessed with stripping down whatever field he studies to get the optimum return from effort expended. Sort of like Tim Ferriss, except with zero fame.

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