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Accurate perceptions: Necessary for forming opinions

By Dr. Rosmann

How people form opinions is well-researched and not terribly complicated. Opinion formation is an established field which many marketers and the news media use to influence what they want people to agree with.

Without an understanding of how human perception works, it’s hard to know what is accurately portrayed in the media these days. This article reviews scientific findings about perception and opinion formation.

Psychologists, biologists and medical doctors agree that our sensory organs such as our eyes, ears and tongue, as well as nerve receptors that register odor, touch, temperature and movement, detect the information they were designed to perceive, to the extent that these sensory systems and our brains function properly. The fields of communication, business and marketing teach others how to measure and alter people’s opinions.

Commercial advertisers and many media capitalize on established knowledge of perception and opinion formation in order to influence recipients to concur with their information. Key principles that explain how people form opinions include these:

- Humans, like many other species, evaluate sensory perceptions to determine if the perceived information threatens or benefits our immediate well-being and longer-term survival.

- People form opinions from the information we perceive. Beliefs are convictions that are based on the compilation of consistent opinions.

- Messages that appeal to emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger and sexual attraction are more likely to generate interest than messages that may be more accurate but fail to achieve emotional reactions.

- First impressions set the tone for opinion formation. Commercial advertisers, news outlets and other opinion influencers seek to be the first to report something, because first impressions may lead to brand loyalty and opinions that are difficult to erase.

- Humans more readily accept information that agrees with their established beliefs than information that disagrees with their beliefs. This tendency is called confirmation bias. We demonstrate confirmation bias when we watch news reports only on our favorite television shows.

- The more frequently a message is repeated, the more likely we are to perceive it as correct; this is called repetition bias. Marketers and other opinion influencers apply this principle by running similar advertisements repeatedly.

- Cognitive dissonance occurs when we perceive information that doesn’t agree with our established opinions. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and amplifies when it upsets beliefs we hold as important. We reduce cognitive dissonance by dismissing discordant information. We revise our opinions only when additional information overwhelms previously established opinions.

- The process of examining information that doesn’t fit established beliefs is called motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is more likely to lead to accurate opinions than dismissing what we don’t want to believe.

How can we form opinions that are objective? 

Our beliefs are choices we make. Whether we pursue motivated reasoning or dismiss reasoning is a choice that is under our control and which leads to forming opinions and eventually to beliefs.

Principles of motivated reasoning include these: 

- Rely on sources of information known to be accurate, such as the results of scientific investigations that are aimed at establishing unbiased findings by following the scientific method.

- The scientific method includes these steps: 1) Form a hypothesis so that an experimental finding can be explained only by the results of modifying the variable being studied; 2) Control the methods of comparison so that only the tested variable differs; 3) Measure the results to ascertain statistically if the results are due to the variable being studied, or to chance; 4) Reach a conclusion that verifies or contradicts the hypothesis.

- The accumulation of knowledge through science has more survival value than manipulating perceptions to influence desired opinions. Agricultural producers first developed the scientific method when they observed differences in the yields of crops as growing conditions varied, such as using manure for fertilizer, or not using manure.

- The more information we review, the more likely we are to reach correct opinions. For example, many farmers review data from test plots before purchasing seeds.

- It’s especially important to examine information that contradicts our opinions in order to evaluate what is most accurate.

- Many people rely on faith to establish beliefs. Faith is acceptance of beliefs from sources we deem as superior (e.g., parents), as well as by examining already-formed beliefs to reach personal conclusions, or by logical analysis, and other methods of learning.

What to believe is our choice. Fortunately, there are examples we can draw on to form beliefs.

Regardless of our opinion about former President Donald Trump, everyone can agree that he is very skillful at applying key principles of opinion formation, such as appealing to emotions, forming and promoting his “take” on issues, implementing confirmation and repetition bias masterfully, and derogating information with which he disagrees as false news.

The ongoing January 6th Committee hearings are an example of applying motivated reasoning by reviewing facts substantiated by witnesses, as well as Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent in order to reach informed opinions.

It’s safe to say how we form opinions, and ultimately our beliefs, are choices we make.

Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at: