Public opinion

From New World Encyclopedia

Public opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population. It can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, the mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to change the minds of people. A continuously used technique is propaganda. Public opinion is frequently measured using opinion polls that use the statistical method of survey sampling, which can still run the risk of bias. The results of opinion polls have themselves been found to influence public opinion, particularly with regard to political elections during which time the tide of public opinion becomes increasingly crucial. The formation of public opinion is considered of great importance in a free society, since there is an implicit assumption that the actions of the public will be guided by their opinions. Those in positions of authority invest considerable resources in efforts to sway public opinion in their favor, with results that may or may not prove beneficial to society as a whole.


The English term public opinion dates from the eighteenth century and derives from the French l’opinion publique, first used by Montaigne two centuries earlier in 1588. "Public opinion" developed as a concept with the rise of a "public" in the eighteenth century. This came about through urbanization and other political and social forces.

Adam Smith referred to it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, but Jeremy Bentham was the first British writer to fully develop theories of public opinion. He reasoned that public opinion had the power to ensure that rulers would rule for the greatest happiness of the greater number.

Using the conceptional tools of his theory of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies argued that "public opinion" has the equivalent social functions in societies (Gesellschaften) that religion has in communities (Gemeinschaften).[1]

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas contributed the idea of "Public Sphere" to the discussion of public opinion. Public Sphere, as he argued, is where “something approaching public opinion can be formed.”[2] This public sphere should have the attributes of universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, these three features that support the formation of public opinion have generally not been in place in western democracy. Thus, public opinion is highly susceptible to elite manipulation.

American sociologist Herbert Blumer proposed a somewhat different conception of the "public," as a form of collective behavior which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time. Given this definition, there are many publics; each of them comes into being when an issue arises and ceases to exist when the issue is resolved. Blumer claimed that since people participate in a public to different degrees, public opinion polling cannot measure the public: an archbishop's participation is more important than that of a homeless or unemployed person. The "mass," in which people independently make decisions about, for example, which brand of toothpaste to buy, is a form of collective behavior different from the public.

Public opinion is a strange, fickle creature. Many things influence the constitution of public thought, sometimes seemingly at random. The mass media, word of mouth, economy, sense of community, advertising, and propaganda all have some effect on public opinion.

Formation of public opinion

The mass media plays a crucial role in forming and reflecting public opinion: it communicates the world to individuals, and it reproduces modern society's self-image. Critiques in the early-to-mid-twentieth century suggested that the media destroys the individual's capacity to act autonomously - sometimes being ascribed an influence reminiscent of the telescreens of the dystopian novel by George Orwell 1984. Later studies, however, suggested a more complex interaction between the media and society, with individuals actively interpreting and evaluating the media and the information it provides.

Advertising and propaganda are two forms of altering opinion through the mass media. Advertising is a more overt method of doing so by promoting the strengths of certain products or ideas (be it for retail products, services, or campaign ideas). Propaganda is covert in its actions but also serves to subtly influence opinion. Propaganda is traditionally used more for political purposes while advertising has been used for commercial purposes.

People are not entirely immersed in mass media, however. Local communication still plays a large role in determining public opinion. People are affected by the opinions of those with whom they work, attend religious services, friends, family, and other smaller scale interpersonal interactions. Other factors of the formation of public opinion include the economy, the state of which has a great effect on people's happiness; popular culture, which can be dictated by the mass media, but can also develop as small social movements; and massive global events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th, which shifted public opinion drastically.

Paul Lazarsfeld argued that the public forms its opinion in a two-stage process. He thought most people rely on opinion leaders. These opinion leaders are affected by world events and then pass opinions down to less active members of society. Lazarsfeld believed that the mass media was the main source of information for opinion leaders, but his theory may have missed the tremendous impact the mass media has over every citizen, not just a select few. Most people gather all of their information regarding current events from some outlet of the mass media be it large newspapers, television news, or the internet. The information these people retain is largely colored by the opinions of those presenting them. As a result, many people take on the opinions of their news presenters (although one could also argue that they gravitate to those broadcast outlets because of similar shared opinions).

Ownership of media and the crafting of opinion

The long-term consequences of the relationship between the mass media and the crafting of public opinion are significant. Continuing concentration of ownership and control of the media have led to accusations of a "media elite" having a form of "cultural dictatorship." Thus the continuing debate about the influence of "media barons" such as Rupert Murdoch. For example, the Guardian reported the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins' refusal to publish Chris Patten's East and West, because of the former Hong Kong Governor's description of the Chinese leadership as "faceless Stalinists" possibly being damaging to Murdoch's Chinese broadcasting interests.[3] In this case, the author was able to have the book accepted by another publisher, but this kind of censorship may point the way to the future. A related, but more insidious, form is that of self-censorship by members of the media in the interests of the owner, in the interests of their careers.

The agenda-setting process is partly one which is an almost unavoidable function of the bureaucratic process involved in newsgathering by the large organizations which make up much of the mass media. (Just four main news agencies – AP, UPI, Reuters and Agence France-Presse – claim together to provide 90 percent of the total news output of the world’s press, radio, and television.) For example, in order to get into the news, events have to happen in places convenient for the newsgathering agencies, come from a reliable and predictable source, and fit into journalists’ framework of news values:

[J]ournalists, who are better seen as bureaucrats than as buccaneers, begin their work from a stock of plausible, well-defined and largely unconscious assumptions. Part of their job is to translate untidy reality into neat stories with beginnings, middles and denouements. … The values which inform the selection of news items usually reinforce conventional opinions and established authority. At the same time, a process of simplification filters out the disturbing or the unexpected. The need of the media to secure instant attention creates a strong prejudice in favor of familiar stories and themes, and a slowness of response when reality breaks the conventions.[4]

The effects of the mass media on public opinion relate not merely to the way newsworthy events are perceived (and which are reported at all), but also to a multitude of cultural influences which operate through the mass media. Thus Lang and Lang claimed that "The mass media force attention to certain issues. They build up public images of political figures. They are constantly presenting objects suggesting what individuals in the mass should think about, know about, have feelings about."[5]

Stuart Hall has pointed out that because some of the media produce material which often is good, impartial, and serious, they are accorded a high degree of respect and authority. But in practice the ethic of the press and television is closely related to that of the homogeneous establishment, providing a vital support for the existing order. But independence (such as of the BBC) is not “a mere cover, it is central to the way power and ideology are mediated in societies like ours.” Hall suggested that the public are bribed with good radio, television, and newspapers into an acceptance of the biased, the misleading, and the status quo. The media are not, according to this approach, crude agents of propaganda. They organize public understanding. However, the overall interpretations they provide in the long run are those which are most preferred by, and least challenging to, those with economic power.

Mass media and political opinion

Political advertising targets people with existing beliefs formed over long periods of time, which they are correspondingly reluctant to change, not on blank-sheet individuals. Moreover, the people who are most exposed to the media are those who know from the outset whom they will vote for, and are therefore least likely to be influenced by propaganda. Thus it may be that the notion that the people who switch parties during the campaign are mainly the reasoned, thoughtful people convinced by the issues, is completely unfounded.

Lazarsfeld claimed that the real influence on undecided voters is the "opinion leader," the individual whose own vote intention is secure, and who is well informed on the issues. Thus personal influence is primarily of greater importance than media influence, albeit using information initially acquired through the media. This may be related to trust and authority: both opinion leaders and the general public will select the evidence and information which supports their view, placing greater weight on more trustworthy sources. For the opinion-leader theory to be true, then, the general public would have to place greater trust in opinion leaders than in the media, so that the opinion leaders act as mediators between the public and the media, personalizing and making authoritative the information the media provides. Thus "… the person-to-person influence reaches the ones who are more susceptible to change and serves as a bridge over which formal media of communications extend their influence."[6] From a psychological viewpoint, we may understand the personal influence of the opinion leaders in terms of group association: perceived as representing the group's desirable characteristics, other group members will aspire to the leaders’ viewpoints in order to maintain group cohesiveness and thus (indirectly) self-assurance. However, the separation of group leaders from the general public is arguably an over-simplification of the process of media influences.

Although such researchers did not ascribe significant direct influence over public opinion to the media, some findings indicate that it has such power over individuals. Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet noted in The People’s Choice that 58 percent of voting changes were made without any remembered personal contact and were very often dependent on the mass media, changes being widely distributed among those who changed their opinion. But this effect was ignored in their conclusion of little direct media influence. Other studies supporting the opinion leader theory failed to distinguish between opinion leading in consumer and political behavior. In political behavior opinion leading tends to correlate positively with status, whereas this is not the case in consumer behavior (choosing breakfast cereals and such items). So for political behavior, the general conclusion that the media merely fixes (confirms) people’s opinion is not supported.

Carl Hovland, using techniques from experimental psychology, found significant effects of information on longer-term behavior and attitudes, particularly in areas where most people have little direct experience (such as politics) and have a high degree of trust in the source (such as broadcasting). It should be noted that since social class has become an increasingly less good indicator of party (since the surveys of the 1940s and 1950s) the floating voter today is no longer the apathetic voter, but likely to be more well-informed than the consistent voter - and this mainly through the media.

Measurement of public opinion

Public opinion is measured by opinion polls—statistical surveys of public opinion using sampling. They are usually designed to represent the opinions of a population by asking a small number of people a series of questions and then extrapolating the answers to the larger group.

History of opinion polls

The first known example of an opinion poll was a local straw vote conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian in 1824, showing Andrew Jackson leading John Quincy Adams by 335 votes to 169 in the contest for the United States Presidency. Such straw votes—unweighted and unscientific—gradually became more popular; but they remained local, usually city-wide phenomena. In 1916, the Literary Digest embarked on a national survey (partly as a circulation-raising exercise) and correctly predicted Woodrow Wilson's election as President. Mailing out millions of postcards and simply counting the returns, the Digest correctly called the four following presidential elections.

In 1936, however, the weakness in the Digest method was revealed. Its 2.3 million "voters" constituted a huge sample; however they were generally more affluent Americans who tended to have Republican sympathies. The Literary Digest did nothing to correct this bias. The week before election day, it reported that Alf Landon was far more popular than Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the same time, George Gallup conducted a far smaller, but more scientifically-based survey, in which he polled a demographically representative sample. Gallup correctly predicted Roosevelt's landslide victory. The Literary Digest went out of business soon afterwards, while the polling industry grew quickly.

Gallup launched a subsidiary in the United Kingdom, where it correctly predicted Labour's victory in the 1945 general election, in contrast with virtually all other commentators, who expected the Conservative Party, led by Winston Churchill, to win easily. By the 1950s, polling had spread to most democracies. Nowadays they reach virtually every country, although in more autocratic societies they tend to avoid sensitive political topics. In Iraq, surveys conducted soon after the 2003 war helped to measure the true feelings of Iraqi citizens to Saddam Hussein, post-war conditions, and the presence of US forces.

For many years, opinion polls were conducted mainly face-to-face, either in the street or in people's homes. This method remains widely used, but in some countries it has been overtaken by telephone polls, which can be conducted faster and more cheaply. However, due to the common practice of telemarketers to sell products under the guise of a telephone survey and the proliferation of residential call screening devices and use of cell phones, response rates for telephone surveys have been plummeting. Mailed surveys have become the data collection method of choice among local governments that conduct a citizen survey to track service quality and manage resource allocation. In recent years, Internet and short message service surveys have become increasingly popular, but most of these draw on whomever wishes to participate rather than a scientific sample of the population, and are therefore not generally considered accurate.

Potential for inaccuracy

There exist a number of potential inaccuracies when relying on opinion polls. These include sampling errors, nonresponse bias, response bias, poor wording of questions, and coverage bias.

Sampling error reflects the effects of chance in the sampling process. The uncertainty is often expressed as a margin of error. A poll with a random sample of 1,000 people has margin of sampling error of three percent for the estimated percentage of the whole population. A 3 percent margin of error means that 95 percent of the time the procedure used would give an estimate within three percent of the percentage to be estimated. The margin of error can be reduced by using a larger sample, however if a pollster wishes to reduce the margin of error to 1 percent they would need a sample of around 10,000 people. The margin of error does not reflect other sources of error, such as measurement error.

Nonresponse bias occurs because some people do not answer calls from strangers, or refuse to answer the poll, so poll samples may not be representative samples from a population. Because of this selection bias, the characteristics of those who agree to be interviewed may be markedly different from those who decline. If the people who do not answer have different opinions then there is bias in the results. Response bias occurs when respondents deliberately try to manipulate the outcome of a poll, for example by advocating a more extreme position than they actually hold in order to boost their side of the argument or give rapid and ill-considered answers in order to hasten the end of their questioning. Respondents may also feel under social pressure not to give an unpopular answer.

It is well established that the wording of the questions, the order in which they are asked, and the number and form of alternative answers offered can influence results of polls. On some issues, question wording can result in quite pronounced differences between surveys. One way in which pollsters attempt to minimize this effect is to ask the same set of questions over time, in order to track changes in opinion. Another common technique is to rotate the order in which questions are asked. Many pollsters also split-sample, a technique that involves having two different versions of a question, with each version presented to half the respondents.

Another source of error is the use of samples that are not representative of the population as a consequence of the methodology used, known as coverage bias. For example, telephone sampling has a built-in error because in many times and places, those with telephones have generally been richer than those without. Alternately, in some places, many people have only mobile telephones. In areas where pollsters cannot call mobile phones (due to it being unlawful to make unsolicited calls to phones where the phone's owner may be charged simply for taking a call), such individuals are not included in the polling sample. If the subset of the population without cell phones differs markedly from the rest of the population, these differences can skew the results of the poll. Polling organizations have developed many weighting techniques to help overcome these deficiencies, to varying degrees of success. Several studies of mobile phone users by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. concluded that the absence of mobile users was not unduly skewing results, at least not at the time of their research.[7]

The influence of opinion polls

By providing information about voting intentions, opinion polls can sometimes influence the behavior of electors. The various theories about how this happens can be split up into two groups: bandwagon/underdog effects, and strategic ("tactical") voting.

A "Bandwagon effect" occurs when the poll prompts voters to back the candidate shown to be winning in the poll. The idea that voters are susceptible to such effects is old, stemming at least from 1884 where it was first used in a British political cartoon in the magazine Puck. It has also remained persistent in spite of a lack of empirical corroboration until the late twentieth century. George Gallup, Jr. spent much effort in vain trying to discredit this theory in his time by presenting empirical research.[8]

The opposite of the bandwagon effect is the "Underdog effect." This occurs when people vote, out of sympathy, for the party perceived to be "losing" the elections. There is less empirical evidence for the existence of this effect than there is for the existence of the Bandwagon effect. Related to these effects is the "Boomerang effect" where the likely supporters of the candidate shown to be winning feel that he or she is safe and that their vote is not required, thus allowing another candidate to win.

The second category of theories on how polls directly affect voting is called strategic or tactical voting. This theory is based on the idea that voters view the act of voting as a means of selecting a government. Thus they will sometimes not choose the candidate they prefer on ground of ideology or sympathy, but another, less-preferred, candidate from strategic considerations. An example can be found in the United Kingdom general election, 1997. Then Cabinet Minister, Michael Portillo's constituency of Enfield was believed to be a safe seat but opinion polls showed the Labour candidate Stephen Twigg steadily gaining support, which may have prompted undecided voters or supporters of other parties to support Twigg in order to remove Portillo.

Public opinion and technology

Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive wrote Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, in 1977 where he took a negative view on the current state of mass media affected public opinion. Mander argued that television has become the new transmission mechanism for cultural influences, but that because of the nature and structure of the medium, it encourages a global homogeneity of culture based on American cultural influences. He gave as an example the introduction of television to the Northwest of Canada, populated mainly by Dene Indians and Inuit. Television led to the erosion of traditional values, pastimes, and occupations, and increased the desire of the young to learn English and acquire material possessions such as cars. The previous mode of cultural transmission - nightly story-telling - ended almost completely with the introduction of television, destroying “a bond of love and respect between the young and the old that was critical to the survival of native culture. Mander described television as “the instrument for re-shaping our internal environments – our feelings, our thoughts, our ideas and our nervous systems – to match the re-created artificial environment that increasingly surrounds us: Commodity life; Technological passivity; Acceleration; Homogenisation.” (emphasis in original).

Mander’s theory is related to Jean Baudrillard’s concept of "hyperreality." We can take the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial as an example, where the reality reported on was merely the catalyst for the "simulacra" (defined by Baudrillard as a copy of a copy which has been so dissipated in its relation to the original that it can no longer be said to be a copy, and therefore stands on its existing as another reality) or images created, which defined the trial as a global event and made the trial more than it was. Essentially, hyperreality is the concept that the media is not merely a window on to the world (as if a visiting alien were watching television), but is itself part of the reality it describes. Hence, the media’s obsession with media-created events.

For the future, the internet may play a role in reclaiming the public sphere for debate. The various means of communication available on the internet present the public with more outlets through which to express their opinions and for formerly marginalized groups of people to come together in central (virtual) locations, giving one voice to formerly disparate peoples. The internet offers newly focused discussion for these groups of people with the potential that their newfound single voices will be much louder in the public sphere. This could lead to the broaching of previously taboo or outlandish topics in mainstream culture and even the eventual shifting of that culture as a result.


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