Why Your Opinions Are Probably Wrong

Why you should be more humble about your opinions.

This article is also available as a video essay.

In 2015 there was a general election in the United Kingdom. For the first time, most of my Facebook ‘friends’ and I were suddenly old enough to vote. The omnipresent social media site — in some feverish rush of democratic fervour — decided to introduce an ‘I’m a voter’ button. You were loudly informed that ‘it’s polling day’ and given the chance to share the fact you were voting.

So a lot of my friends, eager to show just how over-18 they were, proudly shared away. Rather a lot of them decided to accompany this post with their assorted thoughts on the state of the nation.

And it was absurd. Because my newsfeed was suddenly full of passionate assertions, with everyone basically saying if you don’t vote a certain way then you’re either an idiot or intrinsically evil.

I started to wonder whether any of my Facebook pals had ever taken a step back and wondered why they think what they think. If they had stumbled on the ‘right’ answer as to who to vote for — why exactly didn’t everyone share their views?

So today I’m going to explain why your opinions are probably wrong. Or more accurately — why there’s no reason to think that your opinions are any more right than anyone else’s.

And while I’m going to use politics as a case-study — this is applicable to pretty much your entire world view.

What I want to teach you to do is something I call ‘parallel thinking’. This allows you to run multiple interpretations of the same situation in your brain simultaneously.

The lovely news is that this can give you a lot more empathy for other humans. But — for the more cynical amongst you — ‘parallel thinking’ will also mean you’ll find it a lot easier to convince people your version of events is the correct one…

Parallel Thinking. Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

So where do your opinions come from?

Parents and family are a big one, but there’s also your social circle. Your friends will mostly be from the same socio-economic class as you. You’ll probably go into similar jobs. You’ll all go to university — or you won’t.

I’m happy to bet that if you consider your own life, most of you will admit to associating with a certain ‘genre’ of person.

When you start consuming the news it’s pretty likely you’ve already amassed a number of pre-loaded opinions. This means you’ll quickly gravitate to the newspapers and websites which produce ‘sensible’ articles — or to put it more accurately — articles which are written by people who share your opinions! This traps you in a circle where you’re exposed to things you agree with. When new issues come along, you turn to a certain set of commentators who are ready to explain what they think about each issue — and therefore what you will think about it.

This same applies to political parties. A republican is likely to be pro-life. They are also likely to be a climate change sceptic. What does being less convinced by arguments for the environment have to do with being pro-life? Nothing really. Nothing except the fact that a particular ‘tribe’ has decided that these two positions are the ‘correct’ ones.

Even if you came up with smart arguments for your political opinions –the real source of that ‘way of thinking’ goes deeper.

You’ll be — understandably — guilty of post-rationalising, of designing an argument to support your already-existing prejudices. We all do it.

Many people would claim that they counteract this shelteredness by reading a variety of news sources. But there’s a big difference between ‘exposing’ yourself to alternative opinions and actively engaging with them. It’s so easy to succumb to the ‘skimming’ effect. Too often as soon as a point is made in an article that we’ve already decided we disagree with, we then start skimming. We instantly dismiss the need to re-engage with an ‘incorrect’ opinion and hope for something to reassure our preconceptions later in the article.

And even if it were possible for someone to magically absorb information impartially — carefully weighing up each point and reaching an independent and well-thought-through conclusion — there’s still one problem: there are no right answers.

Most policies have winners and losers. For example, layoffs might be good for the overall profitability of a publicly-owned company, but they’re bad for the newly unemployed people.

And people have different priorities. As Nigel Farage articulated in the Brexit campaign, there are plenty of British citizens who would be happy to ‘take back control’ of our law-making, even if it made us poorer in the short-term.

So, if you’re going to take to social media to post your amazing-fact-checked-completely unbiased opinion, perhaps you should consider providing some kind of justification of why your particular priority for policy outweighs any others.

You need to do some mental acrobatics, putting yourself in the shoes of someone who thinks that your current opinions are utterly wrong. Actively try and convince yourself of the other side. If you can make enough of a habit of this, you’ll start ‘parallel thinking’. Whenever you’re faced with a situation, person or debate, you can run multiple interpretations in your brain at once.

Personal, emotional reactions are unavoidable — but you’ll now be able to simulate the alternative reactions you might have had if you were from a different background/education etc. This means whenever you form an opinion to a situation you can immediately start weighing it up against a counter-argument.

Ok, it isn’t taking the Limitless pill, but it’s still an invaluable skill.

Limitless pill. Photo by Halacious on Unsplash

So… what should we take from all this?

Above all, it’s important to remember that absolutely everyone has lazy opinions based on rarely-questioned assumptions. So try to figure out which of your opinions fall into this category and put them under some real scrutiny.

Secondly, when you’re fact-checking, make sure you are doing it from a variety of sources.

Thirdly and finally, be aware of the kind of value judgements you are making. Be aware of what you are holding as priorities when you take a certain position. And, be aware that there may not be an objectively correct answer to a debate.

All of this really boils down further to one golden rule: — be humble about your opinions. Be aware of the futile arrogance of broadcasting any opinion as the definitive truth.

Once you accept something as objectively true and you stop rehearsing the arguments for why it is true — it is no longer a rational thought out argument — it is simply an act of faith.

I’m not saying just be passive, far from it.

What I am saying is — assume you’re wrong and see if your argument can stand up to rigorous scrutiny — all the time, every time.

Doing this process as honestly, objectively, and humbly as you can is the only way you can hope for integrity in your opinions.

And, incidentally, it’s by far the best method for convincing someone that you’re right. If you start an argument by explaining to someone exactly how you understand their position in detail — but then go on to point out the precise point where you differ from them in priority (or where they’ve made an error) — you’ll be straight into the very heart of the argument.

You’ll then either convince them you’re right, realise they’re right — or most likely: come to the conclusion that you both hold respectable but differing policy priorities.

Oh, and by the way: cause I’m obviously a grand-master of parallel thinking, my opinions are the most rational, best thought out, least biased and least prejudiced in the world.

So you don’t need to worry about my opinions being wrong.

Yours truly,

A helpful, humble genius.

The more you know, the harder you will find it
To make up your mind, it doesn’t really matter if you find
You can’t see which grass is greener
Chances are it’s neither, and either way it’s easier
To see the difference when you’re sitting on the fence

Tim Minchin ‘On The Fence’



London, UK. Philosophy, psychology and short stories.

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