The Opinions of Others

Have you ever noticed how people react when you tell them you don't like what they like? The perfect example is a TV show or movie. Over the holidays, what people watched on TV came up a lot.

"Did you see the latest episode of X?"
"No, I don't like that show."
"What!? That's the greatest show ever!" They seem genuinely worked up by your dislike of something they value. 

I was wondering what the reason is for people overreacting to having a difference of opinions. Here are some thoughts:
  • In-Group/Out-Group: If I like X and you say you don't like X, then you are automatically out of my group, you become an outsider. 
  • Worldview Threatened: If I like Q and you say Q is stupid, then that might be perceived as a threat to my worldview. It's a challenge.
This whole thing about Worldviews being threatened is fascinating. I think this is especially a problem when the issue at hand is not a concrete fact, but can be seen as subjective, open to interpretation, or contentious in some way.

Last week, I got a comment on a post that I took the wrong way, and my reply was a bit snippy and defensive. The commenter, Eric, said the following in reply:
"Isn't it odd that in a situation where just about everyone admits that the evidence is not definitive, and probably never will be, where you would think people would be most tolerant of differing interpretations of the evidence, people instead tend to become less tolerant of opposing views and often question the motives or honesty of the other side?"
It's interesting, isn't it? I think studies have been done that have shown just such a conclusion. The more people feel unsure about something important to them, the more they dig their heels in once they believe one side or the other. 

This seems apparent in areas like religion and politics where it doesn't look like there is any one hard fact, it's more about worldview and perspective of the world. People get really stubborn about however they make up their minds.

I'd say that it's different when there is hard evidence to be had, but that's not consistently true, is it? ID/evolution is a prime example where those who accept evolution rely on mountains of evidence and those who believe in ID rely on faith and on one old musty collection of books from 2 millennia ago. 

But, if you asked someone with a strong opinion in a non-factual argument, that person would probably have "good" reasons to believe their side. I think that might be the case because people don't know how to think critically at all anymore, if they ever did. But we are hard wired to rationalize.

Of course, there is also research that shows that people actually form beliefs first, then rationalize those beliefs. Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain does a nice job of explaining how we go about this.

But it definitely puts us on the back foot, because we have to justify our beliefs when they are challenged, and we probably don't have solid reasons for those rationalizations.

I also noticed over the holidays that the offended reactions to differing preferences was much less apparent among my skeptical friends. In my family and among my less skeptical friends, that's where it was really noticeable.

I think this is because skeptical people practice critical thinking, whereas your average person has no idea what critical thinking even is, never mind how to do it.

The moral of the story? Learn how to think critically! 


  1. Yeah but critical thinking involves self-criticism which a majority of people are generally unwilling to do because of fear, denial or ignorance in varying degrees...

  2. Right, Anon. But it's also that no one is taught how to do it.