When you see something created in front of your eyes, you have to think about what it is that you’ve just seen. Such was the case the other week when I was helping a BBC radio journalist on attitudes to disability benefits, where – as if by magic – she produced ‘public opinion’ for their programme. We travelled over to a town in Kent, went into the bar of a local community club, where she corralled four of the people who happened to be hanging around into an impromptu focus group. It was this motley collection of people who were kind enough to take part that was then broadcast to the nation (in a piece that I actually thought was very considered and thought-provoking).
But does it matter how we create this thing called ‘public opinion’? Or put another way, does public opinion about public opinion matter – should we care about what people think about what other people think?
Public and private opinion
One possibility is that our impressions of public opinion really do matter, because our sensitivity to social influence changes what we ourselves think (or are prepared to say). But equally, the views of distant others may be completely irrelevant to our own views of how the world should be.
This has been tested in a lovely experimental study that my Kent colleague Trude Sundberg passed on to me, by Sonck & Loosveldt 2010 using an online panel survey in the Flemish part of Belgium. S&L asked for their opinions on a series of deliberately-selected issues – the independence of Flanders, the adequacy of retirement income, whether immigrants from poor countries should be allowed to live in the country, whether living standards were going down, and about solidarity between healthy and sick people in the healthcare system. Crucially, a random subset of the sample were given actual information on the public attitudes of their fellow-citizens. For example, on the Flanders independence issue:
- Some people were given the following information: ‘An opinion poll commissioned by VRT and De Standaard revealed in November that 12% of the Flemish people favour the independence of Flanders’’
- Everyone ranked on a five-point agree-disagree scale whether ‘Flanders should be independent’
- And everyone answered, ‘In your opinion, what percentage of Flemish people favors the independence of Flanders (0-100 percent)?’
The results are intriguing. For the Flanders question, people on average thought that about 45% of people in Flanders favoured independence – far more than the figure of 12% revealed in the survey. Among the group who saw the poll information, they reduced their estimate of other people’s opinion by about 4.5 percentage points (so they on average thought about 41% of other people favoured independence). And amazingly there was still a measurable difference in attitudes three months later when people were asked again (still at about 2 percentage points).
Yet when it comes to people’s own opinions on independence, hearing about the poll made no difference whatsoever, even at the time that people heard the information. This is the same across all these different areas – S&L consistently found that hearing about polls changes perceived public opinion in both the short-term and medium-term, but had no impact at all on people’s private views.
This isn’t a nail in the coffin for the idea that perceived public opinion affects private opinion – this is only a single study, and a meta-analysis (£) of this kind of study suggests that we are more likely to find an effect on new issues that people haven’t yet formed an opinion of. And sometimes effects are more complex than the simple form that can be tested in this kind of experiment. But it seems reasonable to assume that these effects aren’t that big.
Policymaking elites and public opinion
But if perceived public opinion doesn’t matter much, then why is it such a battleground? Why are the newspapers full of polls that they have commissioned that show that most people agree with the political slant of that paper? For example, in the recent debate about whether benefits should be increased at less than the level of inflation, right-wing people cited polls showing this was popular, left-wing people cited polls showing that the public were split (see my chapter in this).
Partly it might be because people enjoy feeling in the majority, even if this doesn’t change their actual views. (Given the intense slant of all British newspapers – many to the right, but some slanted to the left – you might think that the main job of British newspapers is to pander to their readers’ views and make them feel morally superior. Clearly their role isn’t to create a more truthful public debate – see this, this & this…).
But my feeling is that the main impact of public opinion is in policymakers’ perceptions about what will win them votes, and that THIS is what all of these polls are speaking to (rather than a direct effect on their readers). This is perhaps not such a surprise given all the discussions of focus group politics et al, but this is a necessary piece of ground-cleaning for considering how public perceptions of deservingness, fairness and inequality matter for actual outcomes – which I would argue that they do.