These days, everyone has an opinion about everything — movies, politics, sports, and whether Jennifer Anniston has pursued any cosmetic enhancements.
Inevitably, however, we run into someone with a different opinion who tries to convince us that their opinion is right and that our opinion is wrong. Sometimes, they even bring in scientific facts and complex mathematics to prove their point.
To that, I say, “I was a psychology major. You do the math.”
You see, an opinion is an interesting phenomenon. Merriam Webster defines an opinion as a “belief stronger than an impression yet less strong than positive knowledge.”
So, I looked up the word “impression” and found that it means “an often indistinct or imprecise notion.”
In other words, our opinion is only one step away from an impression which is barely more than a fleeting thought. Knowing this distinction makes me much more understanding of most political rhetoric.
What’s interesting, though, is that many of us believe our opinions are not only right, but they are supported by evidence which can be summarized in some sort of cognitive pie graph or cerebral spreadsheet. But often they are not.
A few years ago, I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator®. This is a test that categorizes your personality into different areas. You can be extroverted or introverted, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving, and as I recall, paper or plastic. After completing the inventory, you’re assigned an acronym with your particular personality configuration. The acronyms are ESTJ, INFP, ISFJ and so on. I think mine was EIEIO due to my upbringing near a dairy farm.
By taking the Myers Briggs, I discovered that my decision-making process was not what I thought it was. For years, I thought I had made decisions based on an analysis of all the available data and an exhaustive list of pros and cons. I assumed I had carefully formulated a solid opinion according to the Mr.-Spock-like factual information I had gathered.
But this was not true.
Not even close.
Turns out, according to either Myers or Briggs, I make decisions based on nothing more than intuition. Then, I try to fit the data into my decision. It’s the decision-making equivalent of backdating a check.
I was shocked. So, I immediately read something by logician Bertrand Russell to ease my mind. But my fears were confirmed when I couldn’t understand a word of it.
Once I settled down, I realized that I am not alone. I routinely see people in the media who state their opinions as facts. Just listen to any politician and you’ll notice that their remarks are highly skewed towards their opinions.
My friend Steven Gaffney has spent a career exploring the difference between facts and opinions based on the “notice-imagine” work of Dr. Brad Blanton. According to Steven, you can notice the fact that I’m wearing pants but it would only be your imagination (or your opinion) that I’m wearing stylish pants. Coincidentally, I’ve often been told that my idea of style is completely in my imagination. But that’s for another blog.
The key to success in our daily communications with others is to know the difference between our opinions and facts, and to use them accordingly.
- It’s a fact that Beyonce released an album and Beck released an album. But no one can factually determine that one is better than the other. Not even Kanye. That will always be just an opinion.
- You will notice that a PC and a Mac have different operating systems. But to claim that the Mac is better than the PC is a fact. OK, just kidding, that’s my opinion.
- You may observe the fact that your spouse leaves a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Thinking that he/she is doing this to make your life miserable is most likely your opinion — unless, of course, he/she has stated that they want to make your life miserable by leaving dishes in the sink.
I was taught to introduce my opinion with a qualifier that makes it clear that it’s my opinion. Here are some examples:
- “It seems to me that you’re angry at me for backing into your car.”
- “I’m thinking that 50 Shades of Gray may not be an example of a typical romantic relationship.”
- “In my humble opinion, that haircut makes your head look like a turnip.”
If I had stated any of these opinions as facts, I would create much more conflict with my comments than, well, I already did.
We all have opinions. But as Gaffney and Blanton suggest, it’s safer to recognize facts as those things we can notice and realize that everything else is our opinion. Of course, that’s just my opinion…in case you didn’t notice.