Distinguishing Between Beliefs, Opinions, and Facts – It’s Not Easy

Distinguishing Between Beliefs, Opinions, and Facts – It’s Not Easy

What is the difference between a fact and an opinion? How about between an opinion and a belief? Are they the same thing?

Last week I  talked about being inundated with opinions regarding how best to raise Malka, our shih tzu-dachshund cross.

Each piece of advice we received was actually somebody’s opinion, and so I began to ask myself “what exactly is an opinion and how do we form them?”

Our opinions eventually become our beliefs. This matters, because our beliefs shape our whole life. If we never give a second thought to where our opinions come from, we’re missing out on a way to reach our goals.

Our Habits Form Our Life

You see, as a habits coach, I realized long ago that habits are based on beliefs, and in order to change your habits, you need to change your beliefs.

Here’s what I mean: if you think you can’t quit smoking, you’re right. You hold a belief you’re addicted, and as long as you hold that belief, you’ll keep puffing away. No amount of will power in the world is going to help. No patch, no pill, no laser therapy is going to do the trick, because in your mind, you hold this fundamental belief: I am addicted.

Once you change that mindset and your belief is I am in control of my smoking. I can quit, and I will, suddenly you will find yourself with the ability to stick to your decision to quit.

I’ve been doing this job for more than 30 years, so I’ve seen this work for basically any habit you can name. This is where my interest in beliefs stems from.

The Difference Between a Fact, a Belief and an Opinion

When I started getting all of these unsolicited opinions about Malka, I then asked myself “What exactly is the difference between an opinion and a belief?” Here is what I found.

Fact: (noun): something that has actual existence. An actual occurrence. A piece of information that can be backed up by evidence.

Belief: (noun): a state or habit of mind, in which trust or confidence is placed, in some person or thing. Something believed. (No kidding!) Something accepted or considered to be true.

Opinion: (noun): a view, judgment or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.

The main difference here is that we can verify facts, but opinions and beliefs are not verifiable. Until relatively recently, most people would call facts things like numbers, dates, photographic accounts that we can all agree upon.

More recently, it has become commonplace to question even the most mundane objective sources of fact, like eyewitness accounts, and credible peer-reviewed science, but that is a topic for another day.

Have You Ever Questioned Your Own Opinions?

The reason opinion and beliefs can’t be verified is because they are not based on evidence that looks the same to everyone. They are our personal reactions to facts and circumstances.

Each one of us takes the information we receive, we filter it through our own personality and life experiences, and we form our own opinions and beliefs.

It is interesting how our beliefs, our opinions, come to us in this very simple format. We gain some information, or perhaps something happens in our lives and we attach meaning to this information or event. It now occupies a small dot on our map of the world.

As our feelings around this opinion intensify, as we experience stronger and stronger feelings for the meaning we have placed on this event or this information, so we come to hold what we call a belief, which now inhabits a bigger piece of our map. So something might feel very “true” to us, we might have an experience that “feels” like evidence, but ultimately it is still our own personal interpretation.

One of the most important differences between opinions and beliefs is that opinions can be changed more easily than beliefs. Think about the difference between trying to convince someone that milk tastes bad, and that consuming milk is fundamentally wrong.

You might be able to get someone to try milk again. Maybe add some sugar and churn it into ice cream, and they’ll have a whole new outlook on the stuff. However, if they hold the fundamental belief that exploiting cows for dairy products is cruel and wrong, you’re unlikely to be able to say or do anything that will change their mind.

A belief therefore is the meaning we place on information coupled with strong feelings we have for that meaning.

Why Bother Thinking About This Stuff?

It is inordinately valuable for us to understand this, as we examine where our lives have taken us to this point, and correlate the results we have attained, good, bad or indifferent, to the beliefs we hold.

Examples of beliefs that affect your life include what you believe about who you are, and what you believe you are capable of achieving. Somewhere along the line you gathered up opinions on this subject and solidified those opinions into beliefs. Those beliefs are guiding you along your way.

Are they doing a good job?

Being deliberate about where we pick up our opinions, and whether we decide to hang onto them until they form our deep seated beliefs is fundamental to the process of meeting our goals in life.

So we need to be able to recognize an opinion vs. a fact, and research shows we’re not great at that.

The Pew Research Center conducted a study where it presented adults with five factual statements and five opinion statements. It found that fewer than 35% were able to classify statements as either opinion or fact correctly.

If we can’t identify when something is an opinion, we are less likely to be intentional about how our opinions form, and when those opinions become solidified into more difficult-to-change beliefs.

And our beliefs are the foundation of our life, our habits.

If we don’t give any thought of where our behaviours come from, our choices come from, we’re unlikely to get our ideal results, make changes to our life when we want to or make the most out of this life we’re living.

Till we read again.

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