Tons and tons of research in the psychology of opinions has considered people’s opinions, including where they come from and how they change. But since so much of this research is done by social psychologists, it’s only natural that it has tackled the issue of how other people’s opinions affect our own.
Although it’s true that we often conform to other people’s opinions, social pressures don’t only affect our opinions themselves—they can also affect the strength of our opinions. I’m about to go into detail on this, but the gist is that our opinions are stronger and more resistant to persuasion when our friends and family have the same opinions.
Weak Opinions vs. Strong Opinions
It’s one thing to be pro-Bernie Sanders. It’s another to be sure that you’re pro-Bernie Sanders. In other words, two people can have exactly the same overall take on Sanders, but one person might be more set in that opinion than the other.
A big topic in opinion psychology is something called attitude strength. By the classic definition, strong opinions (or “attitudes”) are opinions that (a) influence relevant behavior [like voting or purchasing behavior] and (b) remain durable over time and in the face of persuasive messages. For this article, we’re going to gloss over the “behavior” piece of the puzzle and focus on the second part. As far as that part goes, if you try to persuade someone who has a “strong” opinion, you probably won’t be that successful.
There are a lot of clues that can tell you in advance if someone’s opinion is likely to change (i.e., if it’s strong). One of these clues is how confident people are in their opinions. The more certain you are of an opinion, the less likely you are to change that opinion when you’re given persuasive information.
Another of these clues is how ambivalent people are. I’ve talked about ambivalence before—it’s what happens when you have both positive and negative reactions to a topic. So my opinion of “exercising” is ambivalent because on the one hand, it’s good for my health, but on the other hand, I find it exceedingly unpleasant. In general, the more ambivalent you are, the more likely you are to be persuaded…because persuasive information can help you decide between your positive and negative reactions.
Social Connections Can Make Opinions Stronger
I know—I said I’d be talking about the social side of the psychology of opinions. Well, the thing is that the people around us can affect the strength of our opinions. When people agree with us, our opinions are stronger; when people disagree with us, our opinions are weaker.
Some of the research that’s looked at this has considered the effects of “social network homogeneity”…a fancy term, no doubt. Basically, this refers to whether members of your social circle tend all have the same opinion as one another or whether you tend to roll with a group that has a big mix of opinions.
In one study, researchers simply asked people to think of up to seven people with whom they talk about important issues (i.e., friends, family members, or co-workers). The participants in this study both rated their own stance on capital punishment as well as the opinions of each of their social connections. These people also read a short essay that argued against capital punishment. The question was: did people change their own opinions after reading the essay and who changed their opinions most?
The results showed that the more people’s close social connections agreed with them on capital punishment, the less persuaded they were by the persuasive essay. In addition to this very clear influence on people’s reactions to persuasive messages, it was also the case that people whose close connections agreed with them were more certain of their own opinions and less ambivalent than the people whose close connections had more mixed opinions.
The Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Friends Who Agree
The results of this study and others converge to make the points that when we’re embedded in a group with similar opinions, it can harden our own opinions, making them less influenced by persuasion. In fact, it can be as simple as a mere perception of consensus. When we think that most people agree with us on some issue, it increases our confidence and reduces our openness to influence.
It can feel pretty comfortable when everyone you knows agrees with you. If you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, and all of your close friends are fellow Berners, you likely feel pretty sure and unconflicted about your opinion. But if some of your friends were Hillary Clinton supporters, some were Marco Rubio supporters, and one was on board the Trump train, it might shake your support for Sanders, and you may then be more persuadable.
There’s one intriguing new development in this research, though. Although it’s true that we feel more sure of our opinions when we think most people take the same stance, that tends to be especially the case when we’re looking to fit in with the larger group. However, if what we really want is to establish our uniqueness, we can actually become more confident in our opinions when they seem to go against the majority view.
Whichever goal you have in mind, though, it’s clear that we’re well attuned to other people’s opinions, and they can serve to strengthen or weaken our individual leanings.