Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

"Strong Opinions, Weakly Held” is a mantra I try to practice on a daily basis. In essence, I hold opinions about a variety of different topics — it is natural to do so as a human being — but I am willing to change my opinion in light of new information. This makes a lot of sense — as I learn more, my thoughts evolve.

Many people continue to believe in the same things, even after new information has been presented that makes their previous thoughts inaccurate or inappropriate. I firmly believe that if you are going to hold an opinion, you should try to hold is weakly, which means you can change your thoughts as new information becomes available. The reason why most of us hold strong opinions very close to us is because they eventually become part of our identity — “I believe in open borders”, “I believe X is a good person”. If information comes to light that makes your previous opinion incorrect, it can be very difficult to adapt because you have developed a mental model around your past opinion, as it was part of your identity.

One of my biggest problems with strong opinions that are closely held is that people can sometimes end up believing in things that they do not have enough information about. For example, if you proclaim that you are a Republican, you are implicitly signaling that you believe in all of their policies. If, however, you don’t know about their immigration stance and you believe in fully open borders, you will have ended up defending the Republican stance merely by stating you were part of that party. The problem lies in making bold statements about our identity when we don’t have the information we need to render an informed opinion.

Most of us hold opinions on almost everything. In fact, most people will try to develop an opinion about something as soon as it has been said (this often leads to people working on inaccurate information from the start). This begs the question: what work is required to hold a strong opinion?

In order to ensure you don’t end up defending a policy, idea, or concept you do not agree with, you need to do a lot of research about the specific idea, before making it part of your identity. This will involve reading arguments both for and against the viewpoint you are trying to adopt. Indeed, exploring arguments that fight against what you want to believe in are important — they can help you better defend your thoughts, but also help you understand the other side of the story which you may end up believing in more. You should work hard to carefully cultivate your identity around the specific parts of an opinion you want to share, rather than making broad statements without the information you need to defend your thoughts.

Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, used to say: “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” Munger believed that you needed to be fully informed about a subject before you started to hold an opinion. If you are not informed about a subject, you may end up defending views you do not believe in, or that you are not qualified to comment on in the moment. There is a lot of work that you need to do to hold an informed opinion, and I find that most people try to develop an opinion as soon as possible, without conducting adequate research.

What we often forget is that we do not need to have an opinion on everything. Having an opinion on something without the information we need to rebut the opposing arguments provides us with very little value — we could easily be holding the wrong opinion if we do not know the other side of the argument. I try to remain nonpartisan in every situation and, before crafting an opinion, research alternate arguments so that I can affirm which side of the argument I am on. If you do the work, you will realize that it takes a lot longer to form a thoughtful opinion than most people think.

Perhaps I end up — after researching both arguments thoroughly — realizing that my identity resonates with neither side of the argument, and so I do not form an opinion. Or perhaps I realize that I fully agree with one side of the argument, and so decide to hold an opinion on that topic. However, if more information comes along that proves my opinion to be incorrect, I will quickly adapt and move on — why should I defend an old opinion? This is a difficult mindset to adopt because humans naturally want to consume more information that aligns with what they already know — it is easier than learning everything on the other side of the argument and admitting that we are wrong.

The key to adopting this mantra is to consistently question your beliefs. This is unnatural, as aforementioned, but is an important part of ensuring that your opinions are up-to-date and still reflect who you are as a person. If you do not question the opinions you have developed on a frequent basis, they become part of your identity, which makes it harder for you to change your mind for the reasons listed above. If you question your opinions, however, you are able to better evaluate whether they are still relevant, and whether you still believe in them — often you will find that over time, your thoughts on a topic will change. Another key to developing strong opinions that are weakly held is to remain neutral in all discussions until you have enough time to research both sides in depth — do not form an opinion immediately. Give yourself some time to research and reflect, and then carefully consider your thoughts on the subject.

Developing strong opinions that are weakly held is a great competitive advantage — you are willing to change with the times. It also helps you cultivate a mindset of questioning your own thoughts, allowing you to explore your mind and thought patterns in more depth.

Don’t form opinions too quickly. Take time to research and reflect. Question your beliefs. Do not let opinions become part of your identity — let them be weakly held.