How to Avoid Biased Opinions

Acknowledging how our emotions influence our opinions is key to refining them //

Most of the content that gets to us has some connection to the opinions we already have, and those opinions influence how likely we are to agree with that information regardless of its reliability. As Anaïs Nin once said, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”. But if it’s impossible to be entirely objective, we can at least take some control over this process and build more unbiased views. Before looking into the world of ‘fake news’ and analyse whether articles might be trying to manipulate us, we need to take a step back and properly understand those pre-existing opinions living within us, and how they might not be as rational as we’d like to think – after all, we’re only human (see how our opinions are formed and allowing ourselves to be evil).

By following the six-step approach below, you will be able to both understand and refine your own opinions, as well as spot biased opinions when you come across them.

1. Define whether your opinions come from knowledge or belief 

Both the opinions in a news article and your interpretation of them can only be biased when they are meant to debate objective knowledge (something that can be empirically studied or demonstrated), as opposed to subjective belief (something you believe in, religiously or not, but which can’t be explained only by observation) – see the difference between fact and opinion. Often, however, they influence each other. A statement of belief in itself cannot be fake news because belief in itself cannot be true or false. However, you can certainly argue that personal belief drives some of the bias in the news, leading journalists to focus only on the facts that corroborate with their subjective faith when trying to build objective argumments. On their end, readers are also more likely to find logical flaws in statements that go against their beliefs, and accept more easily the ones that suit them. For that reason, the very first step to have a more critical view of your own opinions is to ask yourself whether any seemingly objective opinion you have conveniently corroborates with your personal beliefs. If it does, there might be a slight chance that it was formed by unconsciously prioritising arguments that are more favourable to those beliefs. Play devil’s advocate, and think of reasons why you could be wrong.

2. Understand who your opinions might make you dislike

When thinking of our political, social and economic opinions, there are usually specific individuals or groups of people who either drive or support something you disagree with or who oppose something you agree with, thus receiving your dislike. Think about a strong opinion you have around a more polemic topic. The more specific, the better – instead of something general like “we should invest more in education” something like “a certain politician didn’t invest enough in basic education”. Once you’ve thought of this opinion, try to answer the following questions: Does it trigger any negative feelings, such as fear, anger or envy? Which people do those feelings bring to mind (directly or even tangentially linked to the matter)? What are the bad things they have done to deserve these feelings? And, most importantly, what if any is the measurable impact of those bad things? This is an important exercise to delineate the rationality in our opinions (or the lack thereof). Take a moment to reflect on that. Now, what are some of the good things this person or these people have done (even if you think they might have had sly ulterior motives)? If you can’t answer it, do a quick research – everyone has done something positive at some point, even psychopaths. Although it probably won’t change your opinion on them, answering it helps push emotions away and bring more sobriety to the discussion. This will also allow you to have a more elevated debate with people who disagree with you.

3. Understand who your opinions might make you like

Our opinions often trigger positive feelings in us, like compassion or admiration. For this exercise, still having that same opinion in mind, think about who sits on the receiving end of those good feelings. This could be, for example, because they have done something you think is good (or would do if they were in power) or oppose something you think is bad. Now take a second to reflect, having that in mind, what could be the potentially negative or selfish motivations behind that position (even if you don’t think they are true)? What are the reasons or ways in which this person or these people (at least some of them) could not be so deserving of your admiration? What other things have they done or defended that you disagree with? Although everyone has done things they’re not proud of, your answer doesn’t need to be something particularly bad they are responsible for. It could also revolve around the fact that they might not actually be any more deserving of your benevolent sentiment than other people who don’t get the same admiration. Again, here, even if the exercise might not change your opinion, your support for these people may start to feel a bit less emotional and more grounded – which is exactly what we’re aiming for.

4. Think beyond your opinions

Now that you’ve reflected about how most things are not black and white, and how people are made of a complexity of drivers both good and bad, make a quick list of the pros and cons of the position you defend, and of the ones you don’t. What would you change to improve your position even further? What could the people you defend do better, and what positive things could they learn from the people who oppose them? Opinions aren’t and shouldn’t be static, and we don’t need to just simply agree or disagree with pre-existing views. We should always think critically, agree in parts, and push for better.

“Opinions aren’t and shouldn’t be static, and we don’t need to just simply agree or disagree with pre-existing views. We should always think critically, agree in parts, and push for better.”

5. Identify where your opinions may sit within ‘your tribe’

Think about the people who you share this opinion with – from people you know directly to public figures and broader groups of people (such as a political party, a social class, a career group, a gender or sexual orientation) – do you like or admire them? Do you feel proud to be part of that group? Now, thinking about the ones you know or interact with specifically – how would they feel if you changed your mind? Would that potentially make you more distant from them, or make them less proud of you? Would you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable telling them of this change of mind? And do you think they would respect your new opinion, if you explained it rationally? Humans are a social animals and as such are known to defend opinions which help them belong to their groups. If the thought of changing your mind makes you somewhat uneasy, there is a high likelihood that your instinctive pursuit of social belonging might at least in part be influencing your opinion (see, again, how our opinions are formed).

6. Identify who your ‘rival tribes’ may be

Think about the people who don’t share this opinion with you. Do you get any slight enjoyment in disagreeing with them? That could happen for a number of reasons – when we build our identity by opposition (wanting be different from our parents or older siblings, for example), when we envy someone, or when we think someone deserves to be punished in some way (for example, if someone defends something which you find very negative, you might also want to disagree with them in other topics as an unconscious form of ‘punishment’ or ‘distancing’), to name a few. On point number 4 above, you have just thought of the pros and cons of positions different to yours. Ask yourself: Would you be comfortable telling these people that you actually agree with some of their views? Again, here, the fact that you wouldn’t want to agree with a specific group of people, even partially, might trace back to our tribal roots and how they shape our opinions.

Using this exercise to review your opinions can surely help you build a better understanding of the irrational factors influencing them – our beliefs, the people we like and dislike and the groups we belong and oppose to. It may also enable you to identify those factors in action when you’re reading something new and building new opinions. However, regardless of your biases, news articles often do contain traps which intentionally or not cloud your sense of rationality and may lead you to an incorrect interpretation of facts – and to more biased opinions. 

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