I Don't Want to Put My Thumb On the Scale

Perhaps there is more peace and happiness in loosening one's opinions.

Posted Oct 21, 2018

Photo by William Berry
Source: Photo by William Berry

The title of this post came from a line in a podcast I listened to a couple of weeks ago. Without ruining it for anyone who might want to listen, after the narrator’s adventure rescuing kids and feeling like things didn’t work out the way he had envisioned them, he states “I did not want to put my thumb on the scale” (Spring, 2010). He says this while explaining why he denies a request from the mother of the children. I instantly related this to much of my writing in psychology.

Often in my classes I make a similar statement: I do not want to have an opinion. Students are usually appalled by this. I’ll often hear, “if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything”. Students have trouble grasping the concept of not having an opinion, especially in today’s political culture. Other students suggest without an opinion I’ll stand by and let atrocities happen. Before you get attached to that opinion, perhaps you could hear me out. 

The biggest reason one might want to refrain from attaching oneself to an opinion is the fact that thinking is biased. I have written about this a few times and will refrain from repeating myself. (You can read my posts, The Top 20 ways You are Lying to Yourself, The Big Lie, I’m Full of It, and So Are You). The consensus in psychology is that we deceive ourselves much of the time. Our opinions are based in biases, and though we trust our thinking and reasoning implicitly, it has been demonstrated it cannot be trusted. Attaching oneself to an opinion is accepting one’s reasoning, which though appearing objective, is subjective and subject to biases and distortions meant to protect one’s ego. 

This reasoning is of the utmost importance. When one accepts their thinking is subject to biases, confabulation, and cannot be trusted, how can you be so attached to an opinion? Most can remember a time when they were convinced they were right about something, and some knowledge came to light, and the individual realized he or she was wrong.

A second reason to refrain from attaching yourself to an opinion is that acceptance, which is born of Eastern philosophy, has been demonstrated to lead to better mental health. In Taoism (an Eastern religion that provided the Yin / Yang symbol) there is a saying, wei wu wei. This is translated as the action of nonaction. It is utilized by not forcing anything, of being yielding, and thereby demonstrating greater flexibility. Water is often a symbol evoked in Taoism. Though it is soft and yielding, it also carves the rock and polishes the stone, and finds its level in calm. 

A third reason also comes from Eastern thought, that of avoiding attachment. Attachment to things, including opinions, is considered a source of suffering in Buddhism. Meditations sometimes focus on letting go of attachments, especially to thoughts and desires. To let go of attachments is to be happier. Most have probably heard, or experienced, that you come out of college being less sure of what you went in knowing. 

This does lead to a dilemma, however. We need our opinions to function. Our brain is a categorizing machine, and a byproduct is opinions. Though some monks might have the goal of being completely free of opinions, the rest of us might be happier if we just loosen our attachment to them, especially in this political climate. As Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-received Zen master says, “Peace in the world starts with peace in oneself”. Certainly loosening one’s attachment to opinions will contribute to peace of mind. 

Copyright William Berry, 2018


Spring, J., 2010, Podcast: This American Life, Episode 402: Save the Day, Act 1. Quote retrieved from: https://shortcut.thisamericanlife.org/#/clipping/402/707?_k=lgklyv40:11 of 57:48.