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
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.