How Good Are Your Opinions?

We might be tempted to conclude that if we are free to have an opinion, it must be correct. That, however, is not the case. Free societies are based on the wise observation that people have an inalienable right to think their own thoughts and make their own choices. But this fact in no way suggests that the thoughts they think and the choices they make will be reasonable.

Research shows that people can be mistaken even when they are making a special effort to judge objectively. Sometimes their errors are caused by considerations so subtle that they are unaware of them.

For example, when different kinds of coffee flavors was introduced, it was tested and sampled with three different labels — brown, yellow, and red.

People who sampled the brown-labeled coffee reported that it was too strong and kept them awake at night. Those who sampled the yellow-labeled coffee found it weak and watery. Those who sampled the red-labeled coffee judged it to be just the right strength and delicious. All this even though the coffee in each jar was exactly the same. The people had been subconsciously influenced by the color of the label.

Evidence that opinions can be mistaken is all around us. The weekend drinker often has the opinion that, as long as he doesn’t drink during the week, he is not an alcoholic. The person who continues driving her gas guzzler with the needle on Empty may have the opinion that the problem being signaled can wait for another fifty miles. The student who quits school at age sixteen may have the opinion that an early entry into the job market ultimately improves job security. Yet, however deeply and sincerely such opinions are held, they are most likely wrong.


Types of Errors

Opinion can be corrupted by any one of four broad kinds of errors. These classifications, with examples added for clarification, are the following:

1. Errors or tendencies to error common among all people by virtue of their being human (for example, the tendency to perceive selectively or rush to judgment or oversimplify complex realities)

2. Errors or tendencies to error associated with one’s individual habits of mind or personal attitudes, beliefs, or theories (for example, the habit of thinking the worst of members of a race or religion against which one harbors prejudice)

3. Errors that come from human communication and the limitations of language (for example, the practice of expressing a thought or feel- ing inadequately and leading others to form a mistaken impression)

4. Errors in the general fashion of an age (for example, the tendency in our grandparents’ day to accept authority unquestioningly or the tendency in ours to recognize no authority but oneself)


Some people, of course, are more prone to errors than others. English philosopher John Locke observed that these people fall into three groups:

– Those who seldom reason at all, but think and act as those around them do — parents, neighbors, the clergy, or anyone else they admire and respect. Such people want to avoid the difficulty that accompanies thinking for themselves.

– Those who are determined to let passion rather than reason govern their lives. Those people are influenced only by reasoning that supports their prejudices.

– Those who sincerely follow reason, but lack sound, overall good sense, and so do not look at all sides of an issue. They tend to talk with one type of person, read one type of book, and so are exposed to only one viewpoint.


To Locke’s list we should add one more type: those who never bother to reexamine an opinion once it has been formed. These people are often the most error prone of all, for they forfeit all opportunity to correct mistaken opinions when new evidence arises.



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