Does your opinion define you?

Most of the conflicts in life arise from the belief that one is always right, and this strong belief is rooted in opinions which may not always be true

January 27, 2019 05:00 pm | Updated 05:00 pm IST

When new year resolutions are exchanged one of the things we might reconsider is the list of some of our long held notions about life and people. “Art is useless in a starving world.” “Never trust a foreigner.” Opinions we hold are strengthened when we are around others who hold similar views. “Women should not join the army.” Or “ Climate change will not happen.”

What is the value of an opinion? From Sanskrit comes a saying that one should never accept or reject an idea merely because it is ancient or traditional nor accept or reject something merely because it is new. One should think for oneself. Is your opinion (of something or someone) a position of yours or that of an influential and powerful personality? Does your opinion define you? Most discussions will have someone saying “Well this is my opinion and I am entitled to it.” Yes indeed one is entitled but what is worth remembering is that an opinion is not always a fact. Nor should your rights and opinions impinge on someone else’s freedom. From diets to politics, from religion to money matters and ways of raising children, there are as many opinions as there are people.

A series of illustrations shows a man stroking a cute little creature. As he holds it to his chest and takes care of it the “creature” warms to him and he to it. Very slowly it expands, opens its eyes and looks steadily at him. There is a growing confidence in its expression. It shows its teeth. Now its “owner” has new responsibilities. He brings a big bag of food for the creature which is now an impressive size. Its expression has changed from cute to determined. In the next frame the creature has to be taken for a walk. It looks surly. Other people back off from the pair. Then the creature begins to roar. It has grown to mountainous proportions and pounces on its caretaker.

This “creature” is the man’s opinion and devours him but not before it has broken his life and severed relationships of many years.

Conflict of opinion

An opinion is an expression of a person’s feelings or thoughts based on emotional history and values. But what if the truth is that people do not really believe every position they express in public? Let’s remember that someone who is strongly committed to an opinion and unwilling to consider other options is very likely to impose her view on a second party (you?). And you might be uncertain about which route to walk. In other words a flexible person very often ends up losing to an inflexible friend.

Most of the conflicts in life arise from the belief that one is always right, and this strong belief is rooted in opinions which may not always be true. We incorrectly believe that we are correct. The need to feel superior to everybody else in one’s circle is a weakness many people have but do not realise at all.

The economist Timur Kuran developed a concept called ‘preference falsification’ in order to understand social behaviour — that is, people conform because it can be uncomfortable to disagree with others. This is very common in group discussions. Quite often one person forcefully puts forward his or her opinion and because the others are silent and do not have any other suggestions to offer it begins to look like everybody has agreed with the one who spoke up confidently.

What is your opinion of this article?

The author is Series Editor, Living in Harmony (Oxford University Press).

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