“I think” versus “I feel”

untitledI’ve noticed my students using “I feel” when expressing an opinion–they always used to say “I think.”

I’m a big fan of discussion in my classes–the kind where students read and annotate an article or paper, one that is difficult, but accessible with effort.  Then they discuss the article, from the structure of its argument to its implications for living.

Since I don’t participate in these discussions, we hear a lot of student voices.

It was three years ago that I first heard a student say, “I feel” when expressing their opinion.  I found it jarring–I still do and I don’t like it.

When researching this topic, I found several articles that make the distinction between “I think” and “I feel.” They say the determining factor for which you use is its persuasiveness.  Use “I feel” when speaking to people who are more emotionally oriented and “I think” with those who are more cognitive.  They claim that if your audience is primarily male, go with “I think”; “I feel” resonates more with women.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I am horrified by this instrumental approach to language.

“I think” expresses something different than “I feel.”  And neither is the same as “I believe.”

“I think” means that you are expressing an opinion for which you think there are rational grounds.

  • I think “Arrival” is a profound and beautiful film.
  • I think that “I feel” is over-used.
  • I think ones Facebook feed is a very bad place to get ones news.

“I feel” doesn’t really have anything to do with opinions–you don’t feel opinions.  “I feel” is about senses or emotions, intuitions or perceptions.

  • I feel cold.
  • You said “Fine,” but I feel like there is something wrong.
  • I feel uncomfortable being alone in the elevator with that man.
  • I feel good about the Seahawks’ chances in game against Philadelphia this afternoon.

“I believe” has to do with convictions–“I believe” often involves a great deal of rational thought, but there is acknowledgement that support for your position cannot be reduced to logic.

  • I believe that gratitude ought to be in the list of heavenly virtues.
  • I believe everyone ought to plant daffodils and tulips in November as a ritual of hope.
  • I believe zombies narratives have a prophetic role in our culture.

Feelings are a lot more important than they used to be.

Trust your feelings, Luke.

This sentiment is axiomatic in our culture.  People believe that if they have strong feelings about something then it must be true or valid.

I don’t think they believe it yet, but the primacy of feelings is seeping into the way my students express themselves in classroom discussions.

Feelings are important, but they aren’t the same thing as thoughts.

I think when you think something you should say, “I think” whether or not it’s more persuasive.


  1. Jim Williams

    Trent this is good analysis. Currently feeling is king. My students, like yours, used to say “I think…” which is essentially an “um” or an “ah” to create a pause while they formulated and organized their ideas. I chastised them for this as I pointed out, who else is thinking what you are saying? It is understood that when a person speaks, it is that person’s thoughts. The phrase allows a relativistic thought of “you may think it, but I don’t” response when what the student wanted was a strong, factual statement like “Trump is unsupported by the majority of Americans.” “I believe” doesn’t solve the issue either. Beliefs are also considered flexible by our students.

    The decline in the value of truth and reason, and the rise of feelings, which is jarring to me as well, will be a challenge for us in the classroom.

    Blessings to you as you try to challenge your students.

  2. Wade Harris

    I didn’t read everything you wrote in detail, but I’ve been doing something that’s odd, and a google search led to this page…
    Lately I’ve been writing: “I feel/think that…”
    I’ve been trying to communicate that I’ve connected both cognition and emotion to my evaluation when relaying my feelings/thoughts.
    Weird. But it means something to me.

    • Trent

      I like how doing odd things, brings you to my site 🙂 I like the idea that underlies your practice–that a person is an integrated whole. My practice has been to align the term with whether we are dealing with cognition or emotion, but you are correct that it’s not always distinctly one or the other. How do people react? Thanks for reading (the bits that you did 🙂

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