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Are There Rational Opinions?

Like most of us, you probably think you have rational reasons for your opinions and beliefs. And perhaps evidence and logic determines your thoughts -- to some extent. Maybe you're even more immune than most to the persuasion techniques of politicians and others. Or maybe not...

The truth is that most of our opinions are created from a variety of unidentified forces. We then defend them after the fact, with "reasoning," which is really just rationalization. Of course we might expect less rationality when forming opinions about other people. And in fact, one study has shown that something as simple holding a cup of coffee makes people judge a person in front of them as being "warmer," more friendly.

But even in less emotional areas or decisions that do not involve relationships, we are greatly influenced by the smallest of subliminal factors. The following example shows how unaware we are of the influences that shape our "thinking."

A Scientific Look at "Rational Opinions"

Gary Wells and Richard E. Petty coauthored a little known paper in the journal "Basic And Applied Social Psychology" back in 1980. It was titled "The Effects of Overt Head Movement on Persuasion," and it reported on a study done with a large group of university students.

The students were told they were participating in a study to test the quality of headphones for an electronics manufacturer. Specifically, the company wanted (they were told) to test how well the headphones worked when the body was in motion. All of the students who participated listened to the same set of songs, followed by a radio editorial which argued that the basic tuition at the college should be raised from $587 to $750.

The students were in three groups. The first was told to keep nodding their heads up and down during the entire time of the test. The second was instructed to shake their heads back and forth. The third group was the control group, and these students were told to just keep their heads still.

After the test, the students were questioned. They were asked about the quality of the songs, and how well the headphones functioned. At the end of the other questions, the experimenters slipped in the question that they really wanted the answer to: "What do you feel would be an appropriate dollar amount for undergraduate tuition per year."

Those whose heads were kept still were not affected by the editorial. The average tuition that they thought was appropriate was $582. Notice that this was within $5 of where the tuition already was.

Now it gets interesting. Those who shook their heads from side to side were found to strongly disagree with the tuition hike. In fact, their average "appropriate" tuition was $467 per year. That's almost 20% lower than the first group. Even though they thought they were simply testing the headphones, the process of shaking their heads from side to side - as though saying "no" - affected their opinion dramatically.

What about those who were nodding their heads up and down, as though saying "yes?" They were very persuaded by the editorial. Even though it would cost them personally, they thought, on average, that the tuition should be raised to $646.

If the simple act of moving our heads up and down or from side to side can be so influential in the opinions we have, what else is affecting our thinking process? More on that in future articles. In any case, I think you can start to see that completely rational opinions may be more of a myth than a reality.

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Relevant Pages:

The Intelligence of Self Observation

Self Awareness


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