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20180916 – The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion


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Here is how author defined the main objectives of this book:“The aim is to integrate as much as possible of the dynamics of public opinion within a cohesive theoretical system. The ideas necessary to accomplish this integration are few and surprisingly simple. The first is that citizens vary in their habitual attention to politics and hence in their exposure to political information and argumentation in the media. The second is that people are able to react critically to the arguments they encounter only to the extent that they are knowledgeable about political affairs. The third is that citizens do not typically carry around in their heads fixed attitudes on every issue on which a pollster may happen to inquire; rather, they construct “opinion statements” on the fly as they confront each new issue. The fourth is that, in constructing their opinion statements, people make greatest use of ideas that are, for one reason or another, most immediately salient to them.”

From all above the very interesting inference follows: polling can easily be used to obtain whatever answers pollsters want to obtain and therefore results should be approached cautiously with full understanding of pollsters’ objectives and integrity or lack thereof in achieving these objectives.


  1. Introduction: The fragmented state of opinion research

Here author states the aims of this book and discusses methodology of building theoretical framework for opinion polling. His approach is not just statistical data collection and processing, but also attempt to understand how people convert political information and argumentation into opinions. In other words, author considers it as a study in political psychology. Author also provides plan of the book and discusses data sources.

Chapters 4 and 5 deals with the nature of political attitudes – or more precisely, how individuals convert the ideas in their heads to answers to closed-ended survey questions.

Chapter 6 turns to the substantive content of people’s attitudes, showing how elite opinion leadership, individuals’ level of attentiveness to elite cues, and differences in individual political values interact to affect opinion statements. This chapter, however, deals only with static distributions of opinion, such that can be observed in typical, one-shot opinion surveys.

Chapters 7 through 10 shift the focus to attitude change by developing a dynamic formulation of the argument used in Chapter 6. A source of possible difficulty in these chapters is that they conduct tests in many different issue domains, skipping from one topic to another (from race to presidential popularity to judgments of the performance of the national economy to support for the Korean War) in order to take full advantage of the limited amount of pertinent data. In consequence, this part of the book seems to be somewhat disjointed. However, author hopes that chapters have a compensating theoretical unity, as they test increasingly complex ideas on how the public responds to competing communications of unequal intensities or “loudness.” The fullest tests of the model appear in Chapters 9 and 10.

Chapter 9 analyzes the evolution of mass attitudes on the Vietnam War over the period 1964 to 1970, and Chapter 10 examines the formation of candidate preferences in contested elections (presidential, Senate, House, and presidential primary). Although the two types of cases seem quite different, the dynamics of attitude formation and change in each seem to be exactly the same. Following the presentation of the core arguments of the book in Chapters 2 through 10, author presents what are, in effect, two concluding chapters. The first evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the model developed in the body of the book, suggests some corrections and extensions, and illustrates the form that future theorizing might take. The second of the concluding chapters is an epilogue that stands somewhat apart from the rest of the book. It shows how elements of the system of political information in the United States are linked to the model of attitude formation sketched in the earlier part of the book.

  1. Information, predispositions, and opinion

This chapter introduces the principal theoretical concepts and model based on them. Author defines opinion as combination of information and predisposition. Author believes that the information mainly comes from elite discourse and he defines elite as unknown “others”: politicians, officials, journalists, and experts. Author refers to Lippmann’s “Public Opinion” to discuss how regular people fed with information and inferences preprocessed by elite for easy digestion so they would develop elite’s preferable opinions. After that author discussed some specific stereotypes created either over long period of cultural development such as representation of historical events or recently created such as “the homeless”. Competitive stereotypes of some phenomenon supplied by different parts of elite could define attitudes and consequently political actions for example for the level of support for poor. Correspondingly in cases of united elite, the public usually follows elite’s lead mainly without deviations as in case of war.

Author then discusses specific issue of race and how it was processed via elite discourse. He provides a series of graph demonstrating how it moved attitude for elite and population:

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Then author moves to analysis and measuring elite discourse followed by analysis of mass attention to this discourse. After reviewing elite discourse and its pushdown to the general public, author discusses predisposition that may or may not allow this pushdown. Consequently, author defines political opinion and discusses process of obtaining reports on mass opinion and problems with such reports:

  • Over time instability
  • Response effects
  • Question-wording effects
  • On spot opinion formation with no or little preceding interest in the issue.

AT the end of chapter author discusses overall background of the question-answering model.

  1. How citizens acquire information and convert it into public opinion

This is about the process of acquiring political information that people do not deal with in their everyday live and how it is converted into political opinion. Author defines a few terms for this discussion: considerations –reason that induce individual to decide on political issue, which is combination of cognition and affect; he defines two types of political messages: persuasive message– arguments or images prompting individual to take a position, and cueing messages-information about ideological implications of persuasive messages. After that author defines his model as build on Axioms:

A1. RECEPTION AXIOM. The greater a person’s level of cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely he or she is to be exposed to and comprehend – in a word, to receive – political messages concerning that issue.

A2. RESISTANCE AXIOM. People tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but they do so only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions.

A3. ACCESSIBILITY AXIOM. The more recently a consideration has been called to mind or thought about, the less time it takes to retrieve that consideration or related considerations from memory and bring them to the top of the head for use.

A4. RESPONSE AXIOM. Individuals answer survey questions by averaging across the considerations that are immediately salient or accessible to them.

Author discusses each of his axioms in details and then explains use of the model in this book.

  1. Coming to terms with response instability

Here author discusses one of the most interesting points: different answers to the same question by the same person at different times. Author describes how it was discovered and how pollsters attempt to go around this devastating problem. He brings in his model based on 4 axioms – RECEIVE-ACCESS-SAMPLE (RAS) and makes some deductions based on it. The first is tendency towards ambivalence and author discusses supporting data and measurements. The second is the relationship between responses to open ended questions and direction of opinion statements. Then author provides somewhat mathematical analysis of response instability overall depending on waves of questioning.

  1. Making it up as you go along

This is about polling in circumstances when people really do not know what they are talking about. As example author uses result of polling about congressman that nobody really knows. Actually, it is an important point because only 12% follow local politics, 45% look at it now and then, and 22% has low interest and know pretty much nothing. After that author discusses another deleterious effect for value of polling: situation when response if at least somewhat defined by random factors such as sequence of questions.  Author makes point that it is well described by RAS model, but it is still disturbing that results of polling are not only inconsistent, but easily susceptible to manipulation, turning it from tool of opinion measurement into tool of opinion formation. Author provides detailed analysis of different methods of framing and priming, concluding at the end that majority of people are ideologically inconsistent and polling results could be manipulated to extent of 30-40% as it was demonstrated with the example of poll 3 weeks before such high-profile event as Gulf War in 1990 after about a half year of extensive coverage in the press and political statements. The final part of chapter discusses relationship between public opinion and democracy and unstable, even contradictory character of political actions in democracy.

  1. The mainstream and polarization effects

This starts with the story of Nixon’s wage and price controls and how it was supported by republicans who before where strongly pro-market. Author uses it as an example of elite communications that directs mass opinion according to party affiliation, overriding ideology. Author then analyses mainstream effect when elite developed consensus on the issue. In this case it usually able to transfer this consensus to mass opinion even if before it supported an opposite attitude as it happened with race relations. Quite different dynamic occurs when elite is divided, and consequently mass opinion breaks down and moves in polar directions. Author traces how such process is flowing from elite to more politically aware individuals to less aware until groups move far away from each other. Here are some examples of the process:

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Author also discusses attitude constrains that lead people to support a number of ideologically consistent position across issues.

  1. Basic processes of attitude change

Here author presents mathematical model of attitude change as two-step process: reception of persuasive communication and then acceptance or rejection of its content. The first step is highly dependent on awareness, with more aware processing communication easier, but acceptance for them is much more complicated and more difficult because for highly aware individuals it may or may not be consistent with their ideological values.

  1. Tests of the one-message model

The chapter has three parts. The first analyzes two message-level determinants of attitude change: the intensity of the change – inducing messages, and whether the messages deal with a familiar or unfamiliar issue. These factors create predictably different patterns of opinion change. The second part examines the dynamics of movement from resistance to persuasion at the level of the RAS model’s primitive term, considerations. Finally, the chapter uses the model to shed light on the classic problem of opinion research: generational differences in receptivity to new ideas.

  1. Two-sided information flows

This chapter expands the model from one source of information – dominant flow from elite, to two sources by adding secondary flow of contradictory information. Author uses history of Vietnam war to analyze how initially unified support was divided when part of elite moved to withdraw its support and then moved to resist the war, turning it from mainstream to polarizing issue. Here is graphic representation of this process:

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10. Information flow and electoral choice

This is application of author’s ideas to the situation of election when public divided into two camps by definition. Author looks at inertial resistance and incumbent advantage, which plays big role in House elections. The information flow in this case is pretty much limited to politically aware and therefore mainly serves as confirmation of already existing positions. Defections occur, but not that often. Here is graphic analysis of the process:

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After that author asks anotehr question: “Who leads whom?” (leaders or masses). His response is that it depends, but mainly elite shapes mass opinion via communications. Author provides examples from American history demonstrating how elite moved masses without initial popular support: Brown vs. Board of Education, Nuclear freeze movement, Economic boom of 1982 when change in mood preceeded real economic data, Persian Gulf war of Bush I.

At the end of chapter author reviews critic of basic axioms of RAS model.

  1. Epilogue: The question of elite domination of public opinion

The main point here is that “the voice of people is but an echo” of elite opinion and it sounds in unison when elite opinion is unified and is divided when elite is divided. Author reviews here methods of elite dominance implemented via the political communications system of the United States: Press, Experts, and Mass Media. In conclusion author expresses his believe that people do not have lots of wisdom, but neither do experts and elite, so it is probably works more or less fine since elite is usually divided and the key for maintaining effective democratic system is guaranteeing the existence of vigorous competition among opposing ideas.


It is a wonderful book from the point of view of technical analysis of polling processes and their deficiencies of which are many. The most important and detailed here is the dominance of elite opinion over people’s believes and political actions. However, in years since this book was written we had communication revolution with dramatic increase of peer to peer and one to multitude Internet communications that are cheap to the nearly 0 level and have only one practical limitation – to get noticed. I think that in the view of this new development, polling is pretty much become an outdated process of collecting information and, I believe, it will be pushed out pretty soon by AI applications supporting in depth many-to-many interactions with individual opinions in search of latent massive support fro some ideas, moving them up from the sea of opinions to forefront and, after some period of continuing polishing, graduating them into viable and actionable tools for legislative and cultural change.




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