The Science of Opinions
Whether it’s the recent Australian election, the war in Ukraine COVID-19, or gun laws in the US, the world is full of divided opinions. And that’s before they even get specific to work. It’s human nature to feel passionate about our views and to discuss them with others. But how can we express ourselves respectfully, and be respectful to the opposing views of others? And what happens when we don’t? In this episode, we’ll look at how we can best engage in heated discussions, and why we absolutely shouldn’t shut these conversations down. Joining myself and my co host, Dr. Ben Palmer, who’s CEO of Genesis is Dr. Andy Lotro. He’s a social psychologist who studies how people form change and express their opinions. He produces and hosts the podcast opinion science. And he’s assistant professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University. Welcome to emotional intelligence at work, brought to you by generous International. Welcome, Andy, and hello again, Ben.
Dr Ben 1:06
Hi, Marie. It’s great to be with you. And Andy, as I said, Thank you so much for being on the show with us. It’s just great.
Dr Andy 1:11
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Andy, I’ve got to the first question has certainly got to be how do we define an opinion? And how do we even form them?
Dr Andy 1:20
Yeah, that’s it. That’s a good and a big question. I know I thought I’d start like, yeah, yeah, let’s just jump right into like a very deep philosophical question. It’s a funny question, too, because I have to work backwards a little bit. So. So the podcast is called opinion science. And the reason I use that language of opinion is because it’s, it’s the language that people generally use to talk about stuff that psychologists otherwise call attitudes. So in my training in grad school, it’s a psychologist, I would introduce myself as someone who studies attitudes and persuasion. But attitude, colloquially doesn’t always mean what psychologists mean. And so opinion is kind of like the palatable recognisable version of that, but at its heart, what an attitude is, is an evaluation, right? So I have some I have evaluations of everything. Evaluation is at the heart, I think of psychology and how we move through the world. I have an evaluation of my family, right, I have positive regard for my family, I have negative regard for certain TV shows, for example. Right. So these are attitudes overall, do I think favourably or unfavourably of something? Do I think something is good or bad? Positive or negative? Do I like it? Do I dislike it? There are all sorts of adjectives that we use to express an attitude. And to me opinion is just kind of a natural expression of our attitudes, right? When I have an opinion of a political leader, what I’m saying is I either like this person, or I don’t like this person, right? If I have an opinion of some policy, it means I support it, or I oppose it. If I have an opinion about the movie that I just saw, it means I enjoyed it, or I didn’t enjoy it. Right. So ultimately, when I talk about opinions, that’s what I mean. Sometimes people use opinion, I think to refer to like, subjective beliefs, which isn’t always how I would think of it right. So if someone says, like, I believe that coffee tastes like soap, I don’t know, let’s say I don’t like coffee. I believe it tastes like so. That’s not really an opinion, as far as I’m concerned. Right? That’s a belief that you hold about that. The opinion is that you don’t like coffee, right? That’s the reason you hold the opinion. But the opinion itself is just I don’t like it. Right? So where do these things come from? Well, that’s one route that they can come from is from our beliefs, right? I have beliefs about all sorts of things in my world that inform whether I end up liking or disliking it, right? So I have beliefs about whether this policy is going to help people that translates into my support or opposition to it. Right? So one place it comes from is our beliefs. Another place that our opinions come from is our feelings, right? If I just for whatever reason, I’ve had a positive emotional experience with this person before. That’s where this positive attitude comes from. Right? Like, I look at my infant daughter, and I think I’m just my heart swells with positive effect, that that then means like, I like my daughter. Let me go on record here and say, lest there be any controversy, but it’s not it’s not a it’s not a opinion that’s coming from like my beliefs about her, right? I just kind of have this immediate emotional response, right. And that’s informing my opinion, in the same way that when I really have a distaste for something, I may not actually be able to give you any good reasons. And it might actually be counterproductive for me to try to explain rationally why I don’t like this. The fact of the matter is, I just don’t, it doesn’t make me feel good, and therefore I have a negative opinion of it. So that to me, are kind of like the two primary routes that we can reach into play. yin
Dr Ben 5:01
and yang, I think what I’m taking away from listening to you is almost that our opinions are a little bit like a recipe, you know, there’s a bit of feelings, some beliefs, some past experiences, kind of, you know, like, all these things are a part of it and contribute to ultimately, what is the cake? Or the opinion? Would that be a correct kind of metaphor to use here in some way?
Dr Andy 5:23
Yeah. And it’s an interesting metaphor, because it it raises like this, you know, I’m gonna get into some like, nitty gritty theoretical debates here. But I think they’re interesting, which is that there’s some question about, like, where do opinions live? Right? Aren’t they fully formed in our memory, and we release them into the world when the opportunity arises, right? Like, I already baked the cake. And it’s sitting there on the table ready to be served? And that’s the opinion, right? So now, when I’m in a situation where this opinion is irrelevant, it comes out of my head fully formed? Or are they the kinds of things that we construct in the moment when the situation calls for it? Right? So am I baking the cake live? When I realised I need it? Yeah. And that would be a case where you’d go like, Oh, I’ve never like, formed a specific opinion about this. But now that we’re talking about it, I’m realising that I like this, or I’m realising that I support this person. And I’m really doing that calculus live, as I’m coming up with where I stand. I’m not just reporting on on something I’ve already thought about. And then there’s a hybrid, which I think is kind of my orientation, which is we have all the ingredients in memory, right? And we’ve sort of maybe come to some overall summary attitude, I say, This is my perspective, I’d actually don’t want to like commit to this. But I think it’s compelling, which is, I have all these ingredients in mind. And in the moments, right, maybe what comes to mind most readily are the chocolate cake ingredients. And so in the moment I build a chocolate cake. In another situation, what might be the most relevant to me is, you know, I don’t name another type of cake.
I’m hard pressed to do it. Carry cheese cake.
Dr Andy 7:11
There we go. Well, I don’t want to have there is cheese cake a cake to bake. But let’s say let’s assume, for example, that she’s getting his cake. Right? If in this moment, that cheese cake ingredients are what comes to mind that I build a cheesecake. What I’m saying is like, I mean, in this moment, when you asked me, Hey, what do you think of the President of the United States? What might come to mind is everything that’s been in the news in the last two days, right? And then that informs what I say my opinion is, in a few days, the news cycle has changed. You asked me what my opinion of the US president is, maybe other considerations come to mind. And I give you a slightly different answer. So here’s what I think your ingredients. Analogy helps us understand, like, where do these opinions live? Right? Do I just have one opinion of the President that I always report? Or am I you know, I can groove I can pull out different ingredients on different days, depending on what seems more important to me. It doesn’t mean that I’m flippant, or I haven’t formed a take on things, it just means that we’re updating how we view these issues, right. So I don’t want to convey opinions as though they are absolutely set in stone, even though oftentimes they can seem that way. But we’re flexible, right? We can flexibly think about issues in different ways.
Dr Ben 8:29
Yeah, I was gonna say I think we’re, the cakes become particularly interesting, at least from my perspective of those kinds of cakes that tend to get wheeled out with not a lot of thinking behind them. What do you think of the President of the United States, or here comes a cake for a lot of people, that’s very automatic, that’s very set in stone that it sort of doesn’t tend to matter so much, what happens on a day to day basis, that same recipe, oh, that same sort of cake tends to come out
Dr Andy 8:58
where I thought you’re going with this and that, I mean, I don’t want this to be the cake podcast, but it’s going out direction is with without a lot of thought, right? If I go oh, let me bake a cake really quick. And I’ll just like dumped some flour and eggs and milk in a bowl and throw it in the oven. That’s probably it might like resemble a cake. But it may not be the best cake of the world. Whereas sometimes I go, I have taken the time I’ve studied cake making. I have bought the finest ingredients. I’ve put them together with care and I put it in the oven. Then here’s the difference between what I would call a strong and a weak attitude. I say I would call it that social psychologists call it that a strong or a weak attitude. Weak attitudes are often the kinds of things where we go yeah, I can tell you an opinion. But it may not have been something I’ve thought much about I may not have much experience with it. These are the kinds of opinions that are are likely to change. They don’t last very long. They don’t really inform the choices that we make. Whereas we can other times have very strongly reasoned opinions. Right, I go, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. I know exactly where I stand, I understand every component of this topic. Therefore, when I express my opinion, I’m expressing something that I’m probably not going to change my mind about very easily, that I’m going to continue to think in this way for a long time. And I’m actually going to make choices in my life that are consistent with this opinion, because I’ve done the work to build a good opinion.
Surely there are some circumstances or individuals who would have a weak opinion, but believe in it firmly, which can have a strong impact, despite the fact that the not much time has been spent in forming that opinion.
Dr Andy 10:44
Yeah, so that’s funny. My dissertation work in grad school was about what I called unfounded confidence, when people would say, I am certain of my opinion on this, but when you probe a little closer you go, you actually don’t have a lot of good reason to be that certain of that opinion. And yet, these are folks who may well resist new information. But they can’t do it as thoughtfully because they don’t have any real reasons underlying where they stand. But it’s just sort of like a knee jerk rejection of other ideas, right? So I go, it looks strong, but it’s not strong in the way that we would hope a strong opinion would be built. Right? So people can they can act in that way. I mean, granted, I actually don’t think that that’s super common, I think people generally can be somewhat sensitive. Like, if it’s a strong opinion, that all that means is that people resist changing their mind, right. And so we kind of don’t care how they reached that strong opinion. For us to call it a strong opinion means this is the kind of thing you don’t like to budge on. But people can reach those strong opinions in different ways, some more thoughtfully than others.
And I’m thinking about I mean, there’s, there’s a whole conversation to be had about the way in which people think and form their opinion, some people may form them based on their Instagram newsfeed and others might form them based on studying from credible sources, academic sources, whatever it might be really putting in that time. And therefore those two opinions, even though they’ve both been formed, and they’re both strong, right, differ greatly in terms of their grounding.
Dr Andy 12:22
Yeah, yes. Yeah. Agree. And neither would
be be likely to change their opinion. Regardless about it, because each one would think no, this is I’ve done my research.
Dr Andy 12:33
Yeah, there’s there is some interesting work on we call it like the meta cognitive or subjective formation process. And all this means is catchy. Yes. All that means is, I could reach an opinion by actually thinking a lot about the issue. But I can also reach an opinion that I hold pretty strongly if I believe that I’ve thought a lot about the issue. And there are these fun experiments where they have people form opinions without a lot of information. But they sprinkle in this suggestion that they have indeed thought quite a bit about the issue. And those folks express just as much certainty, right? They say, yeah, no, I as long as I think I’ve thought about the issue, then I’m sure that I’m right.
I think we saw a lot of that during the early days of COVID. You know, when we were talking people were talking about vaccinations and where did COVID come from, and people strongly believing and doing their research, there was definitely Bill Gates who started the whole thing so that he could control the world. And they genuinely, you know, people really genuinely hold very firm beliefs about things that other people might think are ridiculous, but they’re very hard to change. But why is it our natural tendency to get so defensive about our
Dr Andy 13:50
that harkens to something that I was, I was thinking when you were talking about those early days, because part of what that problem was was a politicisation. I don’t know if I’ve ever said that out loud. politicisation sounds like the way you said that.
We’re thrilled to share your first
Dr Andy 14:09
issue, which is to say that, you know, I mentioned that attitudes can come from our feelings and our beliefs. Another place they can stem from our the norm, like what we see around us, right, the norms of our community in our society. Right. So I may hold an opinion, not because I’ve thought about it, or because I have any real experience, but because I know that that’s the opinion I’m supposed to have. My parents have this opinion. My family has this opinion, my community has this opinion by my civic leaders have this opinion. That’s just the one to have. And what you see in this kind of politics domain is that these political identities are not so much a value system or a set of beliefs or a set of attitudes, but it’s just a group that I belong to a place where I get my identity from. And so that’s another way in which It can be hard to change minds because I don’t want to change my mind not because I necessarily think I’m right. But it would like destroy my social life to change this opinion, right? Like, I fit into a community for which this is the norm. And I don’t want to go against that norm. So no, thank you, I’m going to continue to think this,
Dr Ben 15:16
sort of like these opinions are a part of my identity. Exactly. And
Dr Andy 15:21
so when you ask about defensiveness, to me, that is one of the ways in which we can think about where this defensive motivation comes from. Because there is some evidence that not all opinions, but some opinions are the kinds of things that we use to inform who we are, like who I am, is reflected, in my opinion of this political candidate who I am is reflected in my music preferences, right? Like, we have all sorts of opinions that are kind of a part of how we see ourselves. And so when someone challenges those opinions, it we can experience it not as just like a debate about the issues, but an attack on who I am as a person. So when someone is trying to attack you the person, naturally, you’d get defensive, right, because you have a, you have a stake in this opinion being the one that you continue to hold. And so there is some work showing that people can experience attempts at persuasion as a threat to themselves. And so we can when we do interventions that try to reassure people about their identities and their core values, that makes people less defensive, which indirectly suggests to us that ultimately what persuasion can be doing is coming across as an attack on the person. The other part of that is not not so much just about like, this defines who I am, but our opinions are also expressions of core moral values. So my own personal research in this world is about moralised opinions, and what happens when our opinions take on a moral flavour when I think that this isn’t just bad, but it’s wrong. This isn’t just good, but it is the correct course of action to be a good person. Here again, if you’re trying to change my opinion, I might get defensive, if it feels like you’re challenging. Like me, being a good person, right? Like this opinion is about my idea about being a good moral person in the world. And so for you to challenge that kind of feels like you’re telling me, I’m a bad person, that I have bad moral character. And here again, we would get defensive. Whereas if I could understand that all you’re trying to do is play with ideas and suggest like, hey, maybe we could rethink like, whether this is good or bad, I might not get defensive, like, but as soon as that scale tips into your bed, you’re not the person you think you are, you don’t belong to the community, that is an important sense of worth to you. Now, I think that’s where people especially get defensive,
Dr Ben 17:52
sounds to Mandy, like people who persuade well, are very careful about their language, invite curiosity, sort of make the space for intellectual curiosity and humility, safe.
Dr Andy 18:07
Yeah, and come across without threatening the other person. Another way that people get defensive is when persuasion is interpreted as a threat to your own freedom to make up your own mind. So we call this reactance in social psychology and communication, and this is just this idea that by you trying to tell me what’s right and wrong, is implicitly conveying the message that I don’t get to decide for myself what’s right and wrong. And we have a real interest in having our own freedom to make up our own minds. And so good Persuaders will convey to people that you still have autonomy, you still get to make up your own mind, all I want to do is throw out some things that you might find interesting. And it’s up to you whether you want to incorporate this into your worldview. It’s up to you. I’m not trying to manipulate you. I’m not trying to force you to adopt any opinion. I just am curious in getting your take on this, right. So to kind of soften what might otherwise feel threatening to people.
How does this play out in the workplace? Ben, is there room for opinion seeking in the workplace? And it sounds to me like language plays an enormous role in how one expresses an opinion and also seeks it in order to make sure that it’s you know, that you don’t get that emotional, natural defensiveness?
Dr Ben 19:33
Yes, definitely. And the other thing that you’ve obviously got in workplaces as you do in society, but not quite to the same extent is power structures. So if the boss expresses an opinion, for example, that’s very different than say, someone who’s not in a leadership position expressing an opinion and yeah, there’s a whole range of differences. I think the go around with that sort of thing.
So what do you think is that how does one manage those situations where there are polar opposite views at work? What role does emotional intelligence play in having kind of managing those conversations where there’s conflicting opinions at play?
Dr Ben 20:14
And it’s been touching a lot on some of the emotional intelligence dimensions. And they come down, I think, to that persuasion side, you know, I think people with high levels of emotional awareness of others, high levels of emotional intelligence, tend to be a little bit more intellectually curious, tend to understand that. Just because they’ve got a worldview or formed a view doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right view. And so this sort of openness there, I think, to being a little bit more intellectually humble, and exploring what other people’s sort of views and opinions are. Having said that, I don’t think emotionally intelligent people don’t have strong opinions about things I ultimately think they do. But I think they’re more careful perhaps in how they present them to others, how they impose them on others, as Andy’s kind of hinting at, and also, how they, how willing they are to express them in a bigger cauldron of other opinions, if you like.
But let’s assume for example, there’s two polar opposite views at work. And it’s getting quite heated, is there a moment where people should just decide not to discuss that topic or to avoid sharing their opinion on it in order to just keep peace?
Dr Ben 21:34
In my point of view, I think there’s frameworks, protocols sort of thing that often get used in an emotionally intelligent workplaces to help these conversations kind of avoid getting to that point. You know, for example, in a lot of our programmes on emotional intelligence, we teach the concept of intellectual humility, you don’t know what you don’t know. There’s always a kernel of truth in what other people’s opinions are. We teach the power of engaging in sensemaking, where you bring together different points of views to arrive at something a bit more consensually agreed upon. And I think if, at the end of the day, in organisations where there are polar opposite views, or where people just can’t agree to agree, this is where power structures come in, someone ultimately needs to take responsibility and accountability for something and and that’s when, you know, a leadership position, by title often will ultimately have the final say on something,
if there’s a power, structure in play, and you know, you have the boss, the person with the most power doesn’t really approach scenarios with emotional intelligence. What happens?
Dr Ben 22:48
Well, what can happen is staff become disengaged, they stop putting forward their thoughts, feelings and opinions. They start looking for other jobs and in the kind of market that we’re in at the moment, this can be very detrimental to organisations, in terms of talent, attraction, and talent, retention, and all those sorts of things, Marie, but, you know, Patrick Lencioni, talks about artificial harmony and fear of confrontation. And I think that’s ultimately what happens when leaders are opinionated in an emotionally intelligent ways. They tend to shut down other people’s contributions, thoughts and ideas. And so you start getting more transactional kind of relationships between the leader and their staff. Yeah,
Dr Andy 23:34
I just saw one of the things I was thinking of, in terms of the power dynamic that that strikes me from a social psych perspective is it’s very easy, I think, for people with power to forget that they have it and not realise what it means. So there’s working social Indian
Dr Ben 23:52
Prime Minister in Australia comes to mind what ex Prime Minister comes to mind.
Dr Andy 23:58
And in so so where I’m going with this is in social influence kind of work. Like we know that people with power hold influence. And yet there’s newer research that shows that people often misunderstand what that means. And to someone with a sense of power, or someone with power over others expressing opinions may believe like, well, if people disagree with me, they’re, they’re free to disagree. Like, I’m just trying to start a conversation or I’m just sort of expressing my opinion. I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that. But you forget that the other people you’re expressing that opinion to are now like, beholden to you for their livelihoods. So they will not speak up, right? They feel a pressure not to challenge that opinion. And so leaders may get a false sense of agreement from folks because they don’t appreciate the power they have over them to keep their dissenting opinions silent. And so this strikes me again as a danger of these power dynamics, where people are in power pulled in lower status positions may feel sort of coerced into agreeing with positions they don’t agree with. And people in positions of power don’t realise they’re wielding any influence at all.
Dr Ben 25:11
And there’s a lot of complexity and depth to what you’re talking about too. And it’s not just necessarily lower power positions or status, but things like if you’re from a minority group, for example, you know, young girls in classrooms are no not to raise their hands and ask questions as often as boys, by way of example, that used to exist in the past. But certainly, if you’re in a different, or in a minority group of some kind, you coffin, less likely to challenge the status quo, question the way things are being done, provide opinions that might feel a bit different to what everyone else has got to say. And I think there’s, thank goodness, a lot of work that’s been done in workplaces, particularly in the diversity and inclusion space, that’s really helping to knock down some of these barriers and, and make workplace opinions become come out more if I can say that.
I also wonder even if there was, you know, no boss, or manager or any power at play just the power of being part of a team, and having the dissenting view, you know, and disagreeing with what’s going on. And in particular, Andy, one of the things that strikes me about when you were talking about moralised opinions, and the sense of right or wrong is super interesting in that department, because that works. Sometimes we can make really tough decisions that people do have big, you know, when it comes to redundancies for, for example, and management teams disagreeing on how to approach cost cutting, and whose job should stay in whose job should go? How do people what’s what are some ways that people typically manage those kinds of views?
Dr Andy 26:57
I those very specific ones, I’m less in tune to, but in terms of like, just generally, when morality is on the line, one of the challenges is that people have different values that they prioritise, right, so what is moral to me may not be moral to you. And so in terms of navigating these conflicts, one thing that I think is important is to realise that not everyone is coming to these questions from the same perspective. As we said, at the very beginning, I may have reached my opinion about this, because of how it makes me feel, you may have reached it because of what you’ve thought to be true about the issue. And so if we disagree, I might, you might be trying to tell me all about what’s true and false about the issue. And I go, I don’t care. That’s, that’s not the reason I came to this opinion in the first place. In the same way with these moralised opinions, we might say, to me, this just feels wrong, right? This is wrong. This is a, an attack on my sense of what is right and wrong in the world. And to the other person, it might be just like, cost benefits, right? Realistically, like, I’m just trying to explain to you that this is the logistical position we’re in this is what we have to do. But I might go, I don’t care. Like it’s wrong, we came to this, we’re coming to this from such different perspectives that if we don’t take the language of the other person, it’s going to be hard to make headway. So that’s what some of the work in persuasion has been finding that if we, if we lean into our default way of talking about our opinions, we have a hard time seeing eye to eye with people because we’re drawing on information or values or premises that the other person doesn’t care about. But if I can instead figure out like, where are you coming from? And let me use that to frame why I made this decision why I think this is right or wrong. That tends to increase the beneficial outcomes of communication, right? We reach consensus more, we’re persuading each other better. We’re seeing each other’s perspective better.
Dr Ben 28:54
Yeah. What’s one of your most favourite personal favourite kind of snippets or insights from the science in this area? That’s, that’s really, you know, that you tend to bring into your conversations a lot.
Dr Andy 29:06
So I pulled this up before I got on the call with you both because it seemed like it was relevant to what you’re interested in. And this is from the podcast is from Episode 56, with Julia Minson. And her work is something that I’ve recently come to and think is like a very interesting way to approach these kinds of conflicts of opinion situations. She has this notion of receptiveness, right, you know, what is it that makes someone receptive to other opinions? And how does that change the way we have conversations and approach other people and her newer work is looking at my perceptions of your receptiveness shaping how I engage with you, right, like, Will I even bring up my opinion, if I don’t think you’re going to be receptive to it. And they’ve been doing some work on coming up with a kind of a way of training people to I expressed their receptiveness a little better. And so here’s what she said. So this is this is just taken straight from our conversation, but she has this. I hear you acronym. So here being the main acronym, H is for hedging, which is to say when you’re in these conversations, it helps not to make absolute claims. But instead, soften the claims that you’re making the position that you’re taking, just to show like, I’m open to growing, I’m not coming at this from a hardened, rigid perspective, II is for emphasising agreement. This is something also that I learned in talking to like, championship debaters for an episode I did for the podcast, which is one of the things you have to do is concede ground, right to say, hey, we actually probably agree with each other more than you’d think, based on just our opinions. So I actually think I agree with you that this thing is important. I agree with you on this thing. I think the only thing we disagree on is x or whatever. A is for acknowledging the other person’s perspective, right? This is the like, I, I’m, I know you’re a person you have value, I understand why you would come to this from that perspective. And then our is for reframing to the positive rather than cast our opinions in a negative light and saying, like, I hate this, I can’t stand it when people do this. Instead, frame it in terms of the preferences that we have, right? So I don’t hate this. But I like this, right? i It’s not that I can’t stand when people do this. I just prefer when people do this other thing. So hedging, emphasising agreement, acknowledging perspectives and reframing to the positive. I think it’s a very clever way that they’ve been able to encapsulate the work that they’re doing and receptiveness and I think is a takeaway that, that listeners of this podcast would be interested in.