Building Opinions

I have previously written about how difficult it is to form a strong opinion. Contrary to public belief, forming an opinion is not easy, and requires a lot of careful contemplation and research. The proliferation of technology and the always-on nature of our culture has resulted in many of us being pressured to form an opinion immediately after we learn new information. At work, someone may share a report with us, and within minutes we have an opinion about its proposals. With friends, they may be discussing a news story and you feel pressured to share your opinion to fit in with the group. We form irrational opinions quickly in every aspect of our life, because it has become socially acceptable to do so. I would argue that it has actually become socially unacceptable in a few communities to not have an opinion about something — in politics, for example, everyone expects everyone else to have an opinion. Why is building an opinion so difficult? Let’s explore that in more depth.

In order to form an opinion, you need to do a lot of hard work. You have to spend time reading and researching the topic you want to have an opinion on, and then you have to talk with other people about their views and listen to what they have to say. You have to process and evaluate this information, then make a decision about where your opinion should lie — how strong or weak your opinion is warranted to be. This requires you to spend a lot of time thinking about what you have heard, which is often overlooked. It is very difficult to form an opinion within a few minutes — or indeed seconds — because your mind needs time to reflect on the information you have heard. Overall, you need to do a lot of reading and researching in order to build a well-founded opinion which will make sense when you share your views.

Another part of forming a good opinion is to listen to what the other side has to say about something. Rather than solely researching the evidence to reinforce your opinions, you also need to think about what other people have so say about a subject. In forming a good opinion, it is important to talk to people who share contrasting views about a subject. There are two benefits of doing this. The first, and perhaps most important, is that listening to the other side of the story may help you avoid choosing the wrong side of the argument. If you have only heard one side, then there is a chance that you are on the wrong side, which can have serious consequences in the long-run. In business environments, if you advocate for an opinion because you don’t know the other side of the story, it will be very difficult for you to keep up if the final decision is not in your favor — you will not understand why the other side prevailed.

Secondly, talking with people who have contrasting views will give you more comprehension over your argument. If you find that you are indeed on the right side of the argument, then discussing other people’s opinions will help you know what arguments you may encounter on the other side. Therefore, when someone argues a point for the other side, you will be more likely to be able to respond effectively and provide a reasoned response to their statement. If you had not listened to the other side of the argument, however, you would most likely not have been able to render an articulate rebuttal to an argument.

Listening to the other side of the story helps you gain a firmer insight into the reasoning behind other people — what makes them think they way that they do. This provides invaluable information about how you should structure your arguments, and also helps you understand the nature of their opinions, and how they arrived at the conclusion they have. Overall, researching contrasting arguments will help you deliver more articulate and comprehensive responses to other arguments. Charlie Munger summarized this well: “We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”

Forming a good opinion also requires that you give yourself time to digest the information that you have consumed. Oftentimes the most valuable insights that people derive are from the times when they let their brain process information in the background. This is because after we have heard an argument, then our subconscious mind will start to process the information we have heard, and will need time to render an effective response. As we get on with our life, our subconscious will continue to work toward developing an argument. Therefore, over the long-term, we will be able to provide more reasoned arguments, because our mind will have had time to ponder the information we have consumed, and synthesize that information into a well-developed argument.

We often avoid doing all of this work because we have a natural tendency to only research arguments that support the views that we already hold. This is referred to as confirmation bias. We don’t want to research why other people think differently because that forces us to call into question the underlying principles behind our argument. Interestingly though, the less time we spend processing our thoughts, the more this bias interferes with our views. If we do not spend time developing our opinions and rush to judgement, we are more likely to seek confirmation of our views.

But, if we refrain from rushing to judgement and take a step back to think, we are less likely to spend our time seeking this confirmation, and will spend more time considering both sides of the argument equally. Indeed, it can feel unnatural to challenge our views, but most successful people have reached their level of success because they were willing to challenge their views — to be wrong. They noticed that if we spend time researching arguments, we can reduce the chances that we are wrong. They also realized that if we research an argument and we are on the wrong side, then it is easier for us to swap sides than it would be if we held a deep-rooted and biased belief.

There are a few subtle differences between the people that spend time building in-depth opinions and those who do not do the work. The most obvious is that the people who spend time thinking before they form an opinion are those who are able to answer follow-up questions. If you have not done enough research, it will be difficult to answer questions that you have not prepared to answer. The people who invest their time in forming opinions are able to respond to unpredictable questions effectively and provide clear and concise responses. Further, the people that spend time building in-depth opinions are also more likely to provide an articulate justification for why they think the way they do; people who don’t spend time forming opinions generally find it more difficult to justify their line of thinking.

Taking this time to form an opinion does mean that when someone asks you for your views, you will sometimes have to say “I don’t have an opinion on that”. Although our culture seems to think that having an opinion on everything is necessary, it is fine to say that you hold no opinion on something. If you tell them it is because you don’t have enough information, perhaps they will help you in gathering said information and help guide you toward making an informed decision. Taking some time to form your opinion, however, is a good thing to do in the long-run. Doing so forces you to consider the other side of the argument and understand why other people think the way they do. Doing so also will help you ensure that you are on the right side of the argument, and allow you to provide articulate rebuttals to arguments against your line of thinking. It may feel unnatural to say that you don’t have an opinion yet, but not having an opinion is better than developing an opinion on incomplete information.

Take time to process your thoughts. Synthesize information. Consider alternate viewpoints. Only build opinions when you have taken adequate time to do so.

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