Hold Strong Opinions, Weakly

Bob Sutton, the author of Scaling Up Excellence, wrote a short but brilliant blog post back in 2006. It’s been saved to my bookmarks bar since I read it.

In the post, Sutton characterises ‘wise people’ as:

Those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know.

He goes on to describe a piece of advice issued by Bob Johansen of Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future on how to act like a wise person.

A couple years ago, I was talking to the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that, to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward, they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”

They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Instituite Director Paul Saffo.

Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them.

Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions.

This advice reminds me of a passage from Bertrand Russell’s Unpopular Essays:

“Not… what opinions are held, but… how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, [liberal] opinions are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

Similarly, Bob Sutton quotes The University of Michigan’s Karl Weick with his popular piece of advice.

“Argue like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.”

Sutton expands on this in Hard Facts:

“Practicing evidence-based management means adopting beliefs and designing settings that enable people to keep acting with knowledge while doubting what they know, and to openly acknowledge the imperfections in even their best ideas along the way.”

The overarching theme is that one should not hold a belief with such conviction that they begin to value it disproportionately in comparison to counter arguments. One should be open to disconfirmatory evidence as it will result in a stronger, more accurate belief.

While many of these quotes are recent, the demonisation of convictions has occurred in philosophy for much longer. In ‘Human, All to Human’, published in 1878, Friedrich Nietzsche noted,

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

Individuals who hold opinions with strong convictions often succumb to the confirmation bias; they hold their opinion so strongly that they overvalue information that confirms that opinion and undervalue information that conflicts with it.

Groups who have strong opinions and hold them strongly often form echo chambers, where the group’s inability to challenge each other, reinforces and amplifies initial beliefs.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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