How Your Opinions Are Formed Without Your Consent

In your opinion, do you form your opinions like a rationalist or like an artist? Most of us are not even aware there is more than one way to establish an opinion on a subject, in the same way that our sub-conscious never bothered to tell us how to steer a bike. Most of us learned this as a child and did it by trial and error. What we didn’t recognize is that when we turn the handle-bars slightly to the right we went left and have been doing it that way ever since. As a result, although the ability to ride a bike is almost universal, barely one person in a thousand is aware of this basic manoeuvre having the intuitive but incorrect opinion that to go right, you turn the handle bars to the right. (Try it for yourself.)

And so it is with forming an opinion. Intuitively, we think there can only be one way and that we all do it the same way. But that is not the case and intuition strikes out again.

The two ends
There are two opposite methods of forming an opinion and most of us use both, but with a strong leaning one way or the other. The most common method, the ‘natural’ method if you like, is when we use what we see, hear and feel. Those who use only their senses are at one end and we could reasonably call this an ‘artist’ one who uses his or her five senses extensively and generally accepts the validity of the ‘sixth sense’ or intuition.

The second common method is the attention-to-facts variety, one who will only look at proven facts, established and repeatable evidence and has no room for opinions on any subject that cannot be substantiated with evidence. We would reasonably call this person a ‘rationalist’.

Most people are in the middle, leaning one way or the other.

‘Artists’
Despite the high visibility of stage magicians demonstrating how easily our senses are fooled, most of us still rely on our senses to provide us with the evidence we need to form an opinion. To make matters worse, in the absence of input from our five real senses, we rely upon intuition, the notoriously inaccurate guess, made when our brains are in an information-starved state.

Justification for using our senses abound, ‘seeing is believing’ ‘if you can touch it, it’s real’ etc., and they are just a couple of the reassurances we give ourselves, despite knowing full well that our senses can be so easily deceived.

Add to that the fact that the information provided by our eyes is nothing more than a small fraction of what is in front of us, a series of snapshots of the world that our brains stitch together to create a picture of what we ‘see’. Worse, out brains often create images that are not even there in an attempt to interpret the world for us.  Another fine example of what our sub-conscious brain never bothers to tell us about, taking care of business and leaving us with the illusion of being in control.

However, the king of the five senses is hearing. Those who lean strongly towards an artistic view tend to accept a very large part of what they hear from trusted sources, as statements of fact that require no checking. We have a long evolutionary trail of trusting what we hear from the lips of elders. It is also called ‘faith’ in many quarters and which is (having faith) generally lauded as a desirable and admirable trait.

Rationalists
The other method used is reliable, deniable, confirmed, repeatable evidence citing sources than can be checked for accuracy. Obviously this method of forming an opinion requires a certain amount of effort and often turns up evidence that contradicts our preconceived notions.

The rationalist will sift the evidence, read up on the subject, look for the conflicting arguments and evaluate not only the arguments themselves but the qualifications of the source of the information and any evidence of a conflict of interest.

Rationalist: a person who bases their opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response. (Link at the end)

This too has an evolutionary trail when some survived the less-than-accurate words of wisdom heard around the campfire and passed on this skepticism to their progeny. While research sounds like a lot of work, rationalists generally enjoy the chase and like any tradesman, get faster with practice.

Ownership
While both methods produce an opinion, they have completely different ownership rules.

Rationalists don’t ‘own’ the opinions they hold, they tend to think of it more like a rental or lease arrangement and will upgrade or even change to a better model as soon as more relevant evidence comes to hand. Have nothing invested in the opinion, rationalists don’t hold their opinions to be especially valuable.

On the other hand, ‘artists’ as we using the term here, are like a potter, shaping their opinion in this most tactile way, happy to show their work but equally will not want to see it destroyed. Our ‘artist’ side does not separate our identity from our opinions because they are formed entirely from our minds. They are not only our property, they are now part of the construct of our identity. Anyone attempting to break, destroy or alter this opinion will be less than welcome and none too keen to accept an ‘improved’ model. Telling any artist how they can improve their creation will not be met with a smile and thank you.

Change by argument
It is very difficult to change an opinion that has been formed from the extreme end of the ‘artistic’ side. ‘Artist’ opinions are built with personal tools so there is no use for example, a rationalist supplying an ‘artist’ with evidence tools.

Often those of us who lean heavily towards the ‘artistic’ method will also tend to bond with one political party, team or belief system and are blind to both the good in opposing parties and failings in ‘their’ team. This unfortunately means that every event in the life of the ‘opposition’ is bad or at very least, ‘our team thought of it first’. No matter what indiscretion is committed by members of ‘our team’, it can be ignored, excused or forgiven. The only news worth seeing is that which supports the team, aka confirmation bias.

Opinions founded on seeing and hearing are jealously protected and require little real justification or evidence, however if some potentially supporting evidence should surface, it will be taken on board with some enthusism, regardless of the source or attempt to check the veracity of the evidence.

Rationalists tend to have a muted, skeptical sense of respect for individuals who have wealth, power or position, if the message does not match the verifiable evidence. ‘Artists’ will bond more easily with the powerful and once attached, tend to stick.

Embarrassment

If you come across someone who immediately goes into defensive mode undermining or ignoring conflicting evidence, it could be an effort to avoid what they see as the embarrassment of being wrong. The extreme ‘artist’, when backed into a corner with irrefutable evidence placed in front of them, will find any reason to excuse, ameliorate or mitigate their previous position in order to avoid admitting they were wrong, which they perceive as a personal failure. They will not cooperate in changing their opinion unless absolutely forced to do so and even then, will recant immediately afterwards finding new reasons to explain why they were not wrong in the first place.

True extreme ‘artistic’ method users are often, but not exclusively, religious and absolutely sure their version of the deity is the correct one and the thousands of other versions are wrong.

The irony is, the person to which this applies will never agree the description applies to him or her.

In The Middle
Most of us fall somewhere between extreme ‘artists’ and  the extreme rationalists. For many people being shown to be wrong or being criticized in any way is fairly unpleasant but they are not above changing their minds if the evidence is overwhelming or comes from someone who has earned their respect. Unfortunately, there is a correlation between the depth of pain felt and the tendency to revert to the original position once the evidence has faded into memory.

To the right of middle ground, we find the scientists, the educated and the thinkers. They are the rationalists who are prepared to look at the evidence, even when it conflicts with what they hope is true, evidence that would back up their personal preferences and prejudices . Scientists are well represented here as they, by dint of their training, look for other explanations for every event, an improved take on every subject.

Some are also found in the extreme rationalists, the sub-set that find an almost masochistic pleasure in being found wrong. These are the people who seek out every opportunity to be proven wrong. They have a keen interest in getting the perspective of anyone who can speak with some conviction and present evidence of something that is contrary to what they had previously thought was true.

Only this will satisfy their desire for the truth or as near to it as they can be.

Getting it Right
The quirky, almost counter intuitive part of this is, the extreme ‘artists’ who refuse to admit being wrong, are wrong more than 50% of the time while the extreme rationalists are seldom wrong and the reasoning is simple. The rationalists change their opinion immediately the facts change and adopt the latest move towards the truth or accuracy of any given situation as new information, both accurate and inaccurate are encountered. As they age, the more subjects they accumulate upon which their information is very accurate.

On the other hand, those only using the ‘artistic’ method move in the opposite direction as they age, taking on more information (both accurate and inaccurate) and failing to throw out the already accumulated inaccurate information. Eventually, the proportion of accurate assessments falls to the point where they are wrong about a very great number of things.

It’s not intelligence
The tendency to resist admitting wrong is not an indicator of intelligence it’s a question of ownership. While it (difficulty in admitting an error) is more commonly found in dullards, it is not altogether uncommon in the (often opinionated) highly intelligent.

The difficulty for most of us is to make the effort to move towards respecting the evidence. The more one values evidence over intuition, over ‘faith’, the easier it is to establish the truth and use that for our opinions.

References and links
Why you don’t have a birthday. Really, you don’t.
How to think like Einstein

The only news worth seeing. Confirmation bias.
Definition of a rationalist
Seeing what is not there and not seeing what is there
What you didn’t know about how to steer a bike

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