What The People Think When They’re Really Thinking

It’s hard to get a reading on public opinion from people whose information consists of sound bites and headlines. Immersing citizens in the detail of competing policy options can yield better results.

October 2015 | by Robert Harris

Most of the time, in most countries around the world, the public is not very attentive or well-informed about politics or policy. Social scientists have an explanation. They call it “rational ignorance.” If I have one opinion among millions, why should I pay a lot of attention to complicated public issues? My individual views will not have much effect in a large community or nation-state. We all have other, more pressing concerns, areas of life where we can, we think, make more of a difference.

Most public issues involve complicated trade-offs that are difficult to capture in sound bites for a public that is barely paying attention. Yet most governments purport to be democratic and open to listening to the public in some way. How are governments to listen? What are they to listen to, when most of the public is unengaged and uninformed? Many efforts to solicit public input are open to capture by organized interests, mobilized groups, or paid advocates, all of whom are happy to take the opportunity to impersonate public opinion as a whole to serve some interest—perhaps for a public purpose, perhaps for a private one.

So what are governments to do about public opinion? Some poll incessantly. But polls of an inattentive public often give little more than an impression of sound bites and headlines. Sometimes they even convey phantom opinions or “nonattitudes.” People just do not like to say they “don’t know,” even when that is the case; they will, almost randomly, select an alternative rather than admit ignorance. Philip Converse of the University of Michigan famously discovered this in the 1960s, and George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati illustrated it with polls about the fictional Public Affairs Act of 1975, about which people happily offered responses.

At least polls with random samples offer a picture of public opinion that is representative. Even this merit is lost in the current fashion of eliciting Internet commentary or holding town-hall meetings with open invitations. When the Obama administration created a Citizen’s Briefing Book and invited the public to select its top priorities online, voting showed overwhelming support for putting the legalization of marijuana at the top of the national agenda—in the midst of two wars and the Great Recession. There is a kind of paradox of openness. The most natural strategy for public input is simply to invite public comment from anyone who is interested. But such an open, unstructured process will reliably lead to unrepresentative results, open to capture by those who feel intensely. The rest of the public will be left out, and a distorted picture of public priorities will result. This happened with the briefing book, and it also happened with congressional town-hall meetings on health care reform, which were descended upon by impassioned groups in the summer of 2009.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan