How Are Our Opinions Formed?

The Myth of Our Opinions //

Have you ever found yourself trying to convince someone of an idea, only to get frustrated with them not seeing the perfectly logical sequence of facts you presented? If you have, perhaps a time-saving way to start this conversation would have been asking them: “How convinced are you of your opinion?”- and unless they were unsure from the start, you were probably just banging your head against the brick wall. You would very likely never be able to change their mind. Not because your arguments are flawed, but because that’s just not how humans work. Our main mistake is assuming that people are perfectly rational beings and that our opinions are based mostly on reason. But if this is not the case, how can we possibly convince anyone of anything? Although we will never admit that our identity-defining ideas are wrong, we can gradually add to our knowledge – and that’s where the answer lies.


Most ideas you have weren’t developed by you. At least not from scratch. Your ideology – the group of ideas that govern your life, values and habits – likely started to take shape through your parents, your very first social group. Then, at some point in your younger years when hormones hit, you started questioning them, looking for your own identity, your own way of changing the things you didn’t like, and very likely found a group of people which identified with these new views. Later, depending on which direction life took, your reality might have changed again, and so might have your social groups and your ideas. And even if you haven’t read tons of books and studies on all those ideas, you may still defend some of them quite fiercely.

The truth is: Humans are social animals, pre-wired to be influenced by our social groups, and whether we believe something may have less to do with reasoning than with need for belonging. Throughout history, we have created the impression that emotion and reason are separate concepts, but in reality everything we think or do has a bit of both. Think about a core value that is dear to you and that you share with your closest group of friends – anything from a political party you all like, religious values you share, to your take on climate change. Now imagine telling those friends that you have changed your mind, and started believing the opposite. How would that go? It probably makes you uncomfortable just to think of that conversation, and you might even wonder if they would see you the same way after that. Equally, if a friend told you they developed a different opinion on something that is relatively important to you, you might actually start perceiving them differently and perhaps feeling a bigger distance between you two. Simply put, it is harder to think differently from our group than we are usually willing to admit (see also cancel culture and the bias in our opinions). 

Daniel Kahan, psychology professor at Yale, says we can indeed be “adversely affected” as members of a group for holding a view that contradicts an identity-defining issue within that group. As the social animals that we are, we seem to have internal triggers to follow our peers’ judgements and belong to the group – which the business world has long understood, marketing “best-seller”, “most-viewed” and “recommended” stamps everywhere. More than that, studies show that we are willing to neglect even our own knowledge and experience if we are told something often enough – specially if by those we like or trust.

Three types of ideas co-habit our minds: ideas that define our identity as member of a group,  ideas which are an important part of that identity, and ideas which aren’t relevant to that group. If you are a member of the Greenpeace, for example, it is likely that you have a group of friends who identify with environmentalism. It is also likely that this group supports policies such as higher environment-related taxes, or total bans on plastic, as those ideas are relevant to their environmentalist identity. But they might not really care about what team structure you choose for a project at work, for example.

It takes an extreme amount of effort to convince someone that an identity-defining idea of theirs is wrong. Most likely, many people they admire would have to tell them differently, triggering a self-questioning process, and they would also have to observe first-hand that the application of that idea doesn’t really work as expected. Unless they completely change their social setting, this process would take a long time – and still may fail. It’s just our nature.

The good news is humans are not social robots. If we are programmed for belonging to groups and fighting for them, we are also programmed for internal group conflicts and challenging leadership. Let’s say someone believes in environmentalism, or communism. If asked, they will say they will never change their minds about it. They are however probably open to finding better forms of environmentalism and communism. They are willing to question their current shapes and look for better ones – and probably have those discussions with their peers. As long as their identity-defining ideas aren’t threatened, people are willing to evolve. The key for a fruitful debate is therefore not to fight for people to change their minds, but to validate the beliefs they have built and instigate them to always be better. An opposition that attacks less and asks more questions.

“The key for a fruitful debate is therefore not to fight for people to change their minds, but to validate the beliefs they have built and instigate them to always be better. An opposition that attacks less and asks more questions.”

There’s a last nuance. People will almost never acknowledge being wrong, so a debate should never look for a winner. In fact, people tend to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms their prior beliefs – a tendency known as ‘confirmation bias’. They are therefore willing to progress only by building on their existing knowledge, and not by throwing it away – even if, eventually, that takes them so far from their starting point that they end up with a completely diverging opinion.

Imagine a world where people can politely challenge and learn from each other. That world depends on a few factors. Firstly, on having access to opposing or challenging perspectives without being threatened by them. Secondly, on a space where all angles are easily available upon choice but never imposed, allowing for informed opinions to be built autonomously and at our own pace. And, lastly, onhigh-quality and trustworthy content from all sides being easy to access, so that opinions are built around the most complete, unbiased and accurate information available. Those are Beehive’s purpose in this world.

Innovative media platforms like Beehive try to fight the issues associated with polarisation. No matter what your positioning is, we try to bring you the best, most fact-based content, so that you can build on your knowledge. If you tend to the left, for example, we want you to read the best from the left, and to know what left-leaning articles might have serious flaws. We also want to show you the best from the right, to give you quality content that allows you to challenge and polish your own perspectives. And vice-versa. We believe opposition isn’t bad, it’s necessary. But we also believe in elevated debates and in the chance to build a better world together.

1 thought on “How Are Our Opinions Formed?”

  1. Super interesting… we should teach children that so they are more able to navigate thought diversity as adults…

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