Here’s what you’re doing wrong…

Opinions. Everyone’s got ’em. Yet most of us don’t want to hear anyone elses.

It’s a strange phenomenon, and I wanted to explore it. Thanks to my personal nature and career choice, I tend to notice trends and themes around me.

Opinions affect, shape and guide almost every aspect of our lives. From simple viewpoints, such as what particular shade of blue the caribbean sea is right now, to highly passionate perspectives, such as the ongoing debate on the origin of life, Our opinions and those of our peers shape our lives.

Your opinion and mine

There is a strange disconnect between the views we hold, and those held by others. This misalignment arises most often because we consider that we’re right. All the time.

Of course, this isn’t to say we aren’t open to new ideas and concepts. In fact, learning new and previously unknown things about the world around us is what makes us grow as a society. However, the main thought that I am putting out is that until we are presented with a logical alternative (at least, logic as we can decipher it) to our train of thought on any particular subject, we consider our currently held opinion to be the right one. This means that by default, we consider everyone who holds a different viewpoint to be wrong. Perhaps we don’t consciously think this, but it is our normal mindset.

Evolved to be correct (or think we are)

One theory as to why this occurs is evolutionary.

Our ancestors lived in very dangerous and harsh environments, motivated and guided primarily by instinct. Base urges like; avoid predators, tread cautiously in unknown environments, seek shelter for protection, reproduce, protect offspring and so on. One of the key drives was to think and act quickly, going with the first impulse. In a situation where you come face-to-face with a tiger, it pays not to hesitate. Fight or flight survival response kicks in and a decision is made. These primal instincts served early man (and woman) well to survive and thrive, so we grew to trust our feelings and intuition. As humans evolved higher brain function, formed societies and became masters of their environments, these traits were carried through into conscious decision-making and ‘rational thinking’.

We know today that instinct can sometimes misfire and cause strange behaviour. A great example is a moth spiralling into a bug zapper, as a result of its instinctive navigation programming. The basic instruction of “put the big bright shiny thing in the sky on your left to fly in a straight line” came about millions of years ago when there was only one light source available to nocturnal creatures: the Moon. Using it as a basis for navigation made sense as it is stationery (at least, to a moth) and consistent. Enter the modern age and new sources of light that confuse the primitive programming in a moth’s brain. Using the “big bright shiny thing on your left” rule causes the moth to fly in a spiral around the bright object and eventually getting zapped.

Using this concept as a basis, it’s easy to see how the ‘trust your first feeling’ instinct in humans can misfire and cause the sometimes irrational conclusion that we are correct about everything we know. Fortunately critical thinking – in science, mathematics and law for example – keeps this in check to a large extent. We are aware that we, as a society, can’t possibly already have an answer to every question that could be posed. We have hundreds of thousands of intelligent men and women all over the world working on discovering the answers to those questions.

What’s wrong with being right?

If the desire to believe we are right is part of our evolutionary heritage, then what’s wrong with it? Clearly natural selection has favoured being correct as beneficial to our continued survival, so it can’t be a bad thing, can it?

It can be both positive and negative. A reasonable amount of trust in our own instincts is still highly valuable in our day-to-day lives. It helps us navigate social, political and even survival situations. It allows us to make rapid decisions. The key point here is reasonable. If we have an over-inflated sense of our own certainty, we close ourselves off to new and different perspectives. We lose our ability to think critically and objectively. There are examples of this everywhere; in politics, religion, business and many more.

My final word (or not, I’m willing to listen)

Full disclosure: I have strong opinions. Some could possibly accuse me of being unreasonable at times in my arguments. My views on various areas of life can be quite polarising and cause much debate among my friends, colleagues and myself. I enjoy passionately discussing topics across many disciplines. It’s one of the reasons I started this site.

The difference between me and other, similarly opinionated people is, I always try to give a fair hearing. I know I won’t always agree with those who believe differently than me, but I am aware of my inherent flaws and I take steps to consciously override them. It’s an uphill battle. I’m fighting 100 million years of evolution after all.

I look forward to the next new and exciting thing that I turn out to be wrong about.