We may not like to admit it, but our own opinions are greatly influenced by other people. Think about it, all information that we have ever learned has been obtained from other people or from our personal experience by trial-and-error. So, a big chunk of who we are depends on others. Let Alina Gutoreva explain to you how this works.
When someone speaks to us about something new, we quickly start to make assumptions about that person: how trustworthy or attractive (physically or socially, i.e. status) they are, how similar they are to us and whether they possess relevant expertise or authority in the issue (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). The source can be similar or dissimilar to us in terms of our identity, meaning cultural background or personal interests. Research has suggested that the source of information can matter even more than the received information itself (Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). Generally, I like to think about how people deliberate about whether the information is worth listening to. For doing this, the information goes through two filters: the Editorial and Identity Filter.
The Editorial Filter
Usually we are fast to form an opinion about information we receive. Sometimes we are quick to accept and use it, but sometimes we decide the information is hardly worth listening to. One reason why this happens is because we pay close attention and evaluate the source of the information we receive. To better understand what this is all about, I’ll ask you a question: what percentage of brain power do people use?
Many people think that we use only a fraction of our brain power- maybe 10% at any time - whilst we can potentially unleash unseen capacities of our mind. Even though it sounds exciting, this is a myth. In fact, we use the whole brain – some regions are more active at one time, others at another, but the whole brain is always busy.
You might need to think about it for a minute and consider whether I can be trusted on this. You might assume that this is the case, and just accept it. Indeed, since the source of this information is defined – it is an academic blog – and you potentially read this blog to learn something about behaviour, you are likely to be open to new information. But you would feel differently if this information was provided to you not from this blog, but from your grandma. It’s likely that your grandma might have much less expertise on this topic than a bunch of behavioural science PhD’s. But what if the information provided was not about the brain, but about your great grandparents? In that case information provided by us PhD students becomes rather useless.
The Editorial filter helps us to think about the “editor” – the source of information – who might have both authority and trustworthiness. But depending on their personal views, might modify the information in a way, before giving it to you. The Editorial filter helps you to decide whether you should be skeptical and smirk or be fully open to the information.
The Identity Filter Another reason why sometimes we don’t take some information in, is because we are paying closer attention to what is in it for us. Think about how you feel and what you do about issues on national values, drug legalisation, personal responsibility in climate change, gay marriage, healthy food choices etc. These topics can be quite controversial. People often come to a polite “agree to disagree” on these issues after endless debates at the dinner table. As another example, let’s consider this question: Is immigration beneficial to the UK’s economy?
This question feels more “serious” than the brain one, doesn’t it? This is because for the brain question you don’t necessary hold any opinion or aren’t personally attached to it, unless you are a cognitive neuroscientist who is really fed up with “pop-science.” Many issues relating immigration are sensitive and emotionally charged. To add more difficulty, we consciously or unconsciously often choose a side due to our background, life experience, and cultural, personal, social, or political beliefs. These beliefs form our identity. When considering information, it is interpreted in line with but also to fit within the lines of our identity.
In other words, all new facts that we learn go through “identity filter.” Depending on what views we already hold and how strong they are, new facts can be quite difficult to take in. Worse, when we learn uncomfortable facts attacking our identity, we feel threatened and start defending our views (Nyhan, Porter, Reifler, & Wood, 2017).
The idea of the “Identity filter” is that we always project the information onto ourselves. How, if at all, does the information fit the beliefs we already hold? Is it useful to us? Does it require us to make changes in our daily life?
The unfortunate truth is that many of us are much more likely to accept and use information from someone we think shares our identity and our values, than we are likely to listen to a scientist (Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). In this “post-truth” era, it seems that we can debate everything, and everything is controversial. But, this is faulty thinking – we must trust the facts. And facts that are based on research are worth more, than the opinions coming from our affiliates.
We are surrounded by people with their own motives for providing us with information. And that information might be very different from the facts. So what can we do? Our editorial filter allows us for identifying the values and motives of the source. To establish the validity of the information, ask yourself, or them: what are their values and motives in sharing this information with you? Next it is time to take a step back and think how you feel when discussing any particular issue and why. What we think about ourselves and some aspects of our identity may hold us back to have an open discussion. Having identified possible identity struggles, try to eliminate them and be as impartial as you can be. Remember, it’s impossible to be completely impartial, however, the less “personal” you feel about information, the more clearly you can see the strength and weaknesses of an argument. If impartiality does not come naturally, try to consider many sides of an issue. Can you argue for both sides? Would you be able to apply your views and opinions to every person on the planet, and still have it be a sustainable argument? Or is your view only really applicable to the context of your own life? Most importantly, keep in mind that you are learning. We are all still learning. As said before, we are surrounded 24/7 by information sources. It is exhausting trying to filter all their motives, our own motives and the actual facts out of this endless stream of knowledge. Just know that opinions and attitudes are not facts! Opinions can, may and sometimes need to be changed, there is no shame in changing your mind. Even more so, changing your mind means you are evolving and growing as a person.
You still might be wondering, what is the answer to the second question? Is immigration good for the UK economy? You will be disappointed, I’m afraid that I will not provide you with an answer. Rather, I will leave you to figure this out yourself. A good start is here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctpb21/Cpapers/CDP_03_08.pdf
Nyhan, B., Porter, E., Reifler, J., & Wood, T. (2017). Taking Corrections Literally But Not Seriously? The Effects of Information on Factual Beliefs and Candidate Favorability. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2995128
Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. Communication and Persuasion, 19, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4612-4964-1_1
Van Bavel, J. J., & Pereira, A. (2018). The Partisan Brain: An Identity-Based Model of Political Belief The Role of Identity in Political Belief. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2018.01.004