the-nature-and-origins-of-mass-opinionAs we’re now into the election campaign, the entire purpose of which is to get people to form a certain set of opinions and then act on them on May 7th, I thought it was about time I went back to doing another post on a concept from political science that seeks to explain how opinions are formed.

What I’ll be looking at in this post is John Zaller’s 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and the model for public opinion he sets out in, which he terms the Receive-Accept-Sample or RAS model. This is a widely accepted model of how public opinion formed, but not universally agreed upon, and it’s also worth noting that it was published in 1992, so before any widespread use of the internet.

I’m going to try and explain the model as simply as I can, but remember that this is a 300+ page book with lots of charts and tables so Zaller’s arguments are a lot more complex and subtle than the precis of them I’ll provide here. The book is worth reading, or you can also try Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which takes a more psychological approach to public opinion, but is more up to date and discusses Zaller along with other approaches. (I wrote about it here)

Until the advent of widespread public opinion polling and research, the general model of public opinion was what some had called a ‘filing cabinet’ approach. Namely, that people had generally considered opinions on subjects stored in their memory, and if asked what they were, they’d be able to go to the mental ‘filing cabinet’ and pull it out. Even if people didn’t have much information on a subject, they’d tend to hold the same opinion on a subject unless something caused them to change the opinion they held in their filing cabinet. Unfortunately, once polling took off, and researchers began conducting long-term panel studies (asking the same group of people the same questions over time) they found that for many people opinions didn’t follow this pattern and were often wildly inconsistent, swinging back and forth from survey to survey. What became clear was that a large group of people had what Philip Converse called ‘nonattitudes’ – their opinion on something wasn’t fixed, but was basically random.

Zaller’s theory was an attempt to explain this. His model breaks down the process of forming an opinion into three different phaset: first, the individual has to receive information, then they have to make the decision on whether to accept that information and allow it to become a ‘consideration’, and finally when asked for an opinion on a matter, they will sample from the relevant considerations they hold to come up with one. Thus people with more and similar considerations are more likely to give consistent opinions than those with fewer.

Let’s break down each of the three phases of the model. The Receive phase is about how we are exposed to information, which can come to us passively (we encounter it while going about our business) or actively (we seek it out). We are constantly receiving all sorts of information on a number of different topics at any time, and our minds use very powerful filters to determine what actually comes through to be consciously noticed by us.

This takes us to the second phase of Zaller’s model: Accept. Even because we’ve received a piece of information, it doesn’t mean we choose to use it or hold it. For instance, if you read a newspaper, watch the news on the TV or go through your Facebook home page, you won’t remember every story you encounter there. On a simple level, that’s because you’ve decided something’s not worth remembering because it’s irrelevant to you or uninteresting, but on a more complex level it may be because you have filters that define your reaction to a piece of information. The key here is not just that you’ve encountered information, but whether you let it become what Zaller calls a ‘consideration’ – something you’ll bear in mind when asked to give or act on an opinion. For example, someone with strong anti-Tory views is unlikely to let ‘David Cameron is a very nice person’ become a consideration, even if they encounter that information.

What’s important here is that this becomes a repeated process as considerations influence filters, and filters influence what becomes a consideration. Filters can also have a positive effect, not just blocking information so if someone we like and trust says something or endorses a piece of information, we’ll be more likely to accept that than if someone we don’t like says it, even though it’s the same piece of information.

Finally, the Sample phase comes when asked to give an opinion, or act in line with an opinion. We then essentially review the relevant considerations in our memory, with more weight usually given to more recently acquired information, and base our opinion on that. So, if we have a lot of considerations on an issue that we’ve acquired a lot of information on, our opinions are likely to be consistent, and any change will usually be gradual and over time. If however, we don’t have many considerations on an issue, our opinion will be much more random, especially if the considerations we’ve taken on it are wildly different.

To give an example, we’ll look at a voting decision the British public will be asked to make in the near future: Who do you want to to win The Voice 2015? Sasha, Stevie, Lucy or Emmanuel?

Some of you will have seen that question and known exactly who you want to win, because you’ve been watching it (Receive), you’ve assessed the different performances against your musical tastes and conceptions of talent (Accept) and decided which you prefer (Sample). You’re what Zaller calls a ‘high information’ individual. Others of you may barely know that there’s a show called The Voice, let alone that there’s a final this weekend or who’s in it. However, you may have heard people talking about it, seen mention of it in the media and if forced to give an opinion, you might just pluck for whichever name you heard most recently. You’re a ‘low information’ individual, and if you do choose to express an opinion (which is unlikely) it’ll be essentially random. Between these two, medium information individuals are the most important because they have some considerations, and may be likely to act on them, but not enough that they have completely made their decision yet, so could be swayed by new information coming in (a good performance in the final, for instance).

(I used The Voice as an example because if I used the more obvious political example, most people reading this would be in the high information group, and wouldn’t really understand the idea of being low information. Imagine trying to decide which of them is the better singer when you have no real idea what singing is and haven’t seen much of them doing any actual singing to find out, and that can get you to how elections feel for some people.)

Zaller also has some interesting theories on the roles of elites and elite discourse in shaping public opinion. When elites are generally of the same opinion, that opinion is the one that dominates the information people receive, and because it’s coming from sources they trust, it’s an opinion they accept. When elite opinions diverge, however, so do public opinions as they’re not receiving and accepting consistent considerations, so opinion is spread out over a wider spectrum. This is an area where I think some more up-to-date research would be interesting, as it was written at a time (and based on an earlier time) when people’s access to information was much more limited and susceptible to bias towards a consensus view.

Overall, though, Zaller does give us an interesting perspective on how opinions are created and goes some way to explaining just why election campaigns happen as they do. Hearing that nice man from Sherlock who’s not Bandersnatch Cumberbund, telling you how to vote is more likely to get past your filters than having another politician doing it, and if you won’t respond to a leaflet through your door, you might be more likely to read a free magazine or click on a link that a friend shared with you. More importantly, they’re also trying to affect what’s in your mind when you make the decision how to vote, so that you’re using the considerations that are more favourable to them – even where you go to vote can influence your decision. That’s something else to bear in mind when you’re making your decision.

Oh, by the way, I think Sasha should win The Voice.