A few incidences of people sharing their opinions in various ways over the last few weeks got me thinking about how and why we express our opinions, and how we feel about doing so. I am sure you have all noticed similar things. On the one hand I observed someone arrogantly expressing something inappropriate that they hadn’t fact checked and refusing to back down when it was pointed out that it was wrong. On the other hand I have observed some quite competent and thoughtful people who feel reluctant or shy of sharing their opinions and views.
I have also observed that those people who are more reserved with sharing what they think tend to be more open. They are the ones who can see that they may be making assumptions from a position of privilege, they tend to be open to other cultures viewpoints and being challenged and corrected on their assumptions and presuppositions. The tension between confidence and openness is one that I have struggled with for a long time, even back when I was a PhD student. I didn’t have too much trouble writing and expressing my opinions to the three people who read my PhD, but expressing myself with confidence and surety was a bit harder always at the back of my mind was the idea that perhaps there was some new research in some corner of the library (yeah it was mainly hard copy research in those days!) that I had overlooked. How can I be confident in my opinion, or even my summaries of research when the world of knowledge is so vast and there is so much to know?
I do enjoy sharing my opinion (and I have lots of them!), but it has stretched my confidence to put them right out there on a blog. Of course, my blog is not just my opinion, I try to incorporate researched information with stories and application ideas. This week I set out to find our more about why some people are more confident in expressing their opinions than others, why some people are more open to other viewpoints than others and whether there may be a relationship between the two. Well, that proved to be a bit of a rabbit hole that I have been in for some days! It proved harder to find anything illuminating than I thought it would, the further I delved the more complex it has all begun to look.
I started with personality factors, trying to discover what elements of personality may have an impact on our willingness to share. I looked into what is known as the five-factor model of personality, as that is one of the most robust. People who score high on extroversion (one factor of the five) in this model are likely to feel more comfortable sharing their opinions than those low in extroversion. In the five-factor model, those people high in extroversion are described as preferring to direct their energy outwards towards others, and this includes the sub -factor or facet of assertiveness. People high in assertiveness express themselves forcefully and there is a small relationship between having high self-confidence and being high on this extroversion factor. Well that sounds to me like the people who have no trouble sharing their opinions on everything and anything
Openness is another of the factors in the five-factor model. It is the tendency to seek out and enjoy new experiences, it includes intellectual curiosity and being open to new ideas and values. That sounds like it describes people who are open to having their assumptions challenged and being introduced to new ideas. Openness has also been shown to be associated with the ability to listen well to others. Identifying these personality factors that may be at play in these scenarios is helpful as a starter but it still doesn’t explain why people with openness would struggle to express their opinions, and why women seem to have a harder time valuing their own opinions and expressing them than men seem to.
So I kept on digging. Eventually, I discovered that there is a gender difference in what is called intellectual risk taking. Men are more likely to take intellectual risks than women. These means that men are also more likely to guess if they don’t know, whereas women are more likely to say don’t know rather than to make a guess. Men are also more comfortable just having a stab at areas that they don’t know about.
Expressing your opinions, putting your ideas out there is intellectual risk taking. Your ideas can be torn apart, you can be attacked personally, someone can tell you, you are wrong or disagree with your ideas. Men don't let fear of this risk stop them sharing, but it seems women do. Also, risk-taking is predominantly seen as masculine behaviour. So as women and men are socialised men are likely to be praised for taking intellectual risks and women are likely to be punished. The result of this reaction is that men get more chance to practice intellectual risk- taking than women, and they get better at it. Women in the professional sphere also feel the need to perform to a higher standard than a man so may be reluctant to share their opinions, ideas or research until they are 100% sure of their statements. A man doesn’t have this added pressure to live up to.
Gender differences in intellectual risk-taking is a nice explanation of why men happily share any of their opinions with anyone, while women hold back until they feel confident and sure of their theories.
Although it still doesn’t explain the relationship between confidence to express ideas and openness to others ideas. I am wondering and I have no evidence to back this up, if the delayed closure that is caused by the fear of intellectual risk taking, allows more room for further investigation and listening. But that could probably be the topic of another post or PhD.
For your thoughts:
How do you feel about expressing your opinions?
What experiences and reactions to your opinions may have caused these feelings?
When and how have you had your presuppositions challenged?
How open are you to others ideas?
How can you create safe spaces to practice taking intellectual risks?