Decision at a crossroad - Confidence or Doubt

The Power of Certainty: When People are Sure of Their Opinions

Are you sure about that? How can you be so certain?

Today, I’m defending my doctoral dissertation in social psychology. After 6 long years of being a graduate student, the actual PhD is finally on the horizon. By the way, I’m writing this in advance. At the time this article is posted, I’ll either be trying to breathe calmly or I’ll be nervously proclaiming the importance of my research to people who are way smarter than me.

What is that research, you ask? It’s about certainty.

certainty and uncertaintyAs someone who tends to avoid feeling overly certain, I’m amazed by the certitude that other people seem to have. They make statements as if anything else is clearly wrong.

In the current election, some people are fiercely committed to Donald Trump. Some are absolutely sure that Hillary Clinton is the answer. Others remain totally confident that Bernie Sanders was the answer to America’s woes. But how can they be so sure?

Psychologists have been looking at certainty from a lot of angles. Sometimes they look at how sure people are of a decision they’ve made. Sometimes they consider a person’s self-confidence. Sometimes they want to know what happens when people are confident that their memories are correct.

There’s been a lot of attention, however, paid to one form of certainty in particular: opinion certainty. Opinions are inherently subjective, so it’s interesting that some people are so sure that something is good or bad and other people are uncertain. One person might think that abortion is wrong and hold that opinion with absolute conviction. Someone else might also think that abortion is wrong, but he holds that opinion more tentatively.

But what happens when you’re confident? Why should we care whether some people are certain and other people aren’t? Well, if you’re certain of an opinion, a few interesting things happen.

Certainty and Behavior

In general, our opinions are related to our actions. I really like Brussels sprouts, so it’s no surprise that I often make them for dinner. I am pro-environmentalism, so it makes sense that I make a point of turning off the lights when I’m not in the room.

But an opinion doesn’t guarantee a behavior. I think exercising is a great thing to do, but I’ll admit…I don’t often make it to the gym. There are plenty of times where our opinions and our behaviors aren’t a perfect match, and this is where certainty can come in.

certainty and voting

When you’re certain of an opinion, you’re more likely to act on it. Think about the election again. Someone who is confidently pro-Clinton is more likely to actually go out and vote for her than someone who is pro-Clinton but somewhat uncertain.

In one early study, researchers looked at whether certainty mattered for whether people vote or not. They asked a bunch of college students what they thought of student government. Did they like it or not?

Then they asked them how sure they were. If they supported student government, were they totally confident or a little uncertain? If they said they didn’t support student government, were they sure?

Then they looked at whether those students were going to actually vote in a student government election. After all, the people who supported student government should be more likely to go out and actually vote in an election! As it turned out, that was mostly the case for the people with certainty.

If they were sure of their opinions, the people who supported student government actually went out and voted, and the people who didn’t support student government were true to their stance and stayed home. But for the people who weren’t so sure, it didn’t matter as much whether they said they were pro- or anti-student government.

Certainty and Persuasion

certainty and persuasion

The more sure someone is that he’s right, the harder it is to persuade him that he’s wrong. This is a key feature of certainty. When we feel sure, it’s way harder to change our minds.

One study told college students that their school was thinking about adopting a new policy that would make everyone carry their ID cards around all the time. Obviously, the students weren’t too crazy about this idea.

But the researchers did a couple things to get some people to feel really sure that they didn’t like the idea and to get other people to feel less sure.

First, some of the students had to indicate their opinion a bunch of times. Research has shown that repeating your opinion makes you feel more sure of it. Other students only had to say their opinion once.

Second, some of the students were told that 90% of other students also thought the new ID policy was bad. Others studies have shown that you feel more confident in your opinion if you think most people have the same opinion. Other students were told that only 10% of other students had the same opinion.

So some people were feeling really sure of their opinions and other people were feeling less sure.[1]  Okay, I should mention that this study was actually looking at two different aspects of certainty. The thing about repeating their opinions over and over? That was to make people feel like they knew what their opinion was. It’s a part of certainty called “clarity.” And the thing about hearing other students’ opinions? That was to make people feel like their opinion was the right one to have. That’s a part of certainty called “correctness.” Even though these are unique aspects of certainty, it turns out that they’re both important for how people respond to persuasive information. At this point, everyone read a short essay arguing that this new ID card policy was super great–it would make campus safer and more fair.

The question is: were people convincedThe students who didn’t feel so confident in their opinion were the ones who were persuaded. The students who felt really sure that the policy was stupid? They didn’t buy it. So feeling more certain was associated with being less persuaded.

Certainly There’s More?

That’s not where certainty ends, but it’s as far as we’ll go today. The more confident people are in their opinions, the more likely they are to express those opinions, try to convince other people, seek out specific kinds of information, and feel confident in themselves. But maybe those details are better left for another time. Maybe after I defend my dissertation…

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Okay, I should mention that this study was actually looking at two different aspects of certainty. The thing about repeating their opinions over and over? That was to make people feel like they knew what their opinion was. It’s a part of certainty called “clarity.” And the thing about hearing other students’ opinions? That was to make people feel like their opinion was the right one to have. That’s a part of certainty called “correctness.” Even though these are unique aspects of certainty, it turns out that they’re both important for how people respond to persuasive information.

One thought on “The Power of Certainty: When People are Sure of Their Opinions

  1. I think certainly can be a form of dominance. In a subjective area to make a certain statement is an act of aggression.

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