August 8, 2014 5:02 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Is it OK not to have an opinion?

Having fixed opinions on subjects we know little about can be a problem

The Shrink

A long time ago, a friend, who must be one of the most opinionated people I know, expressed concern that she didn’t always have an opinion on things. I found this puzzling. Why should she, of all people, worry about not having a firm position on everything?

Like the reader who asked this week’s question, humans do feel the pressure to opine. One reason for this is our craving for certainty (or certainty bias). We tend to believe people more when they have forceful opinions, even if there’s no evidence that these are well founded. I still remember how once, at a pub quiz, I allowed someone else’s misplaced confidence to put me off an answer I knew for a fact.

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The Shrink & The Sage

This thirst for certainty is also why we mistrust a more open-ended outlook. What could be seen as sitting on the fence – on the one hand this, on the other hand that – seems somehow unsatisfactory, as if it were a sign of some kind of flaw, associated with indecision and dithering. But while taking such an attitude to extremes can certainly be debilitating, it is usually more truthful to recognise that most issues do have multiple sides.

What we lose in certainty we may gain in thoughtfulness. Although the confidence of the more opinionated can win influence in the short term, being thoughtful may be a better overall approach, as it avoids oversimplification and counters the certainty bias.

An illustration of a man outside his car parked on the end of the road made by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

It is not the absence of firm opinions that may be problematic but having no views at all. More interesting than expounding opinions is being able to identify what’s worth talking about, developing perspectives, questions and viewpoints.

It also depends on the issue in question. It’s perfectly OK not to have a view about all sorts of things that we’ve had no reason to look into, whereas having fixed opinions on subjects we know little about can be more of a problem.

Both having rigid opinions on everything and having no opinions on anything are undesirable. What matters is holding views that are well-grounded and undogmatic.

The Sage

Although people are often praised for having the courage of their convictions, there are times when the inherent uncertainty of an issue makes us criticise their confidence. When a question is finely balanced, suspension of judgment is the most rational course, even if the need to act makes it practically impossible to sit on the fence.

That much is uncontroversial. The argument starts when we try to decide which matters are sufficiently debatable to warrant not having an opinion. Many seem to assume lack of certainty is sufficient to warrant such agnosticism. For instance, the atheist is told that since we can’t be sure God does not exist, it is irrational to maintain he does not.

I’m always surprised how many people think this is not only true but obviously true. Yet there are all sorts of things we believe which are far from 100 per cent certain. No one really knows what the optimal human diet is, for example, but few advocate alimentary agnosticism. We accept the evidence is clear that we ought to avoid excessive sugar, fat and processed foods, while remaining open to future evidence that suggests otherwise.

The atheist need not claim God’s non-existence is certain. She or he need merely be convinced that the balance of evidence suggests very strongly that God is a product of the human imagination. If the clouds part and the deity reveals him – or herself, the atheist will gladly recant.

There is a kind of agnostic who genuinely has no opinion and so doesn’t criticise those who do. But many agnostics have a very clear opinion indeed: that the balance of probability is too fine to call. This is not suspension of belief in the face of uncertainty but the certain belief that the matter is especially uncertain. Such an agnostic may be just as dogmatic in this belief as believers or atheists. Indeed, many are, accusing others with righteous conviction of being wrong to commit either way. But you know someone is not thinking straight when they are very opinionated about why you ought not to have an opinion. 6

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.

To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

Illustration by Laura Carlin

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