opinion is dynamic and relational

“Sixty percent of Americans approve of the indictment of former President Donald Trump, according to a new CNN Poll.” This statistic results from randomly selecting more than 1,000 Americans and asking them to express their opinions in response to a multiple-choice survey question. Every respondent provided an answer. One might therefore presume that (almost) all Americans hold private opinions about the indictment, and they are able to disclose those views–truthfully or not–when the phone rings with a pollster on the line.

Is that what the survey results really mean? Here are 13 hypothetical scenarios in which someone opines in favor of the indictment:

  • A reads online about the indictment and forms a private opinion in favor of it. A pollster randomly calls A (out of the blue) to ask about the indictment. A recalls and shares his opinion, because he wants to be sincere in a conversation with a courteous stranger.
  • A pollster randomly selects B, who is a Democrat. Despite privately believing that the indictment is a stretch, B says that it is fair. She feels fine about this deception because Trump is a threat to democracy, and a poll is a means to influence public opinion.
  • A pollster randomly selects C, who thinks: “The 34 disclosed charges are only valid if they relate to an undisclosed additional felony, but I assume that this felony is serious or else Mr. Bragg would not have sought the indictment, so I will say it is justified.”
  • When randomly contacted for the same survey, D thinks, “Trump: bad. Indictment: bad for Trump. Therefore, Trump’s indictment: good.”
  • A family member asks E what she thinks about the indictment, so she forms an opinion in favor of it and casually states her view, without much emotion.
  • F’s friend says, “About time, Trump got arrested.” F generally admires this friend and takes her opinions seriously. F hasn’t thought about this news otherwise. She expresses agreement.
  • G’s colleague says, “I can’t believe those radicals are persecuting Trump.” G is generally annoyed by this colleague but has not otherwise thought about the indictment. G forms a private view in favor of it.
  • H serves on the New York grand jury and is required to vote whether to indict on each of 34 charges. Based on extensive evidence and deliberation, but with decidedly mixed and sober feelings, H votes to indict.
  • I paints a sign that says “Lock him up,” drives to New York City, and waves the sign in front of the national media while Trump is being arraigned. This person sincerely believes that Trump is guilty of the disclosed charges and thinks it is important to persuade the public of his guilt.
  • J joins I, also holding a similar sign, but isn’t especially interested in the hush money case and actually believes it is weak. J mainly wants to be on TV.
  • K is a Democratic senator and former prosecutor who feels that the New York State case is legally weak, politically detrimental to Democrats, and polarizing. However, K faces a potential primary challenger from the left. K issues a press release defending the indictment and calling for calm while the legal process plays out.
  • L is a liberal pundit who interviews six legal experts about the case, recognizes significant challenges to a successful prosecution, but carefully develops the strongest possible argument in favor of indictment in order to counter editorials that seem biased against Alvin Bragg.
  • M is a reporter who wants to write an objective and balanced news account of the indictment. A reads the quotes attributed to Alvin Bragg in M’s article and forms the opinion that the indictment is justified.

Each of these scenarios involves a person opining in favor of the indictment, yet their meanings are quite different. In several cases, the opinion is clearly dependent on context and could easily shift.

In all these scenarios, the opinion is relational–that is, formed during a purposive interaction with other people. Only a few of the scenarios involve thoughts that remain private. The rest are statements expressed to someone else for a reason, and sometimes at a cost.

Even the private thoughts are responses to others’ previous statements. For instance, A could not form an opinion about the indictment directly, as you might form an opinion of cold rain falling on your head. He must have heard or read one or more descriptions of the indictment that were written by people with intentions–even if, like the reporter labeled M, these writers would deny any bias. A may have chosen to read a description of Trump’s indictment for some specific reason, or the news might have assailed A’s consciousness without being sought, e.g., in the form of a headline.

A common implicit model of public opinion assumes that many people individually form authentic opinions of issues and store them in memory. On this model, well-known problems, such as the influence of the precise wording or ordering of questions or the refusal of many people to answer specific items, should have technical solutions. For instance, CNN should have offered a “not sure” option to reveal how many people lack opinions.

Some of the technical problems might result from a mismatch between the formulation of questions and the ways that people store their opinions. For example, I might have a strong, negative view of Donald Trump but no specific thoughts about the indictment. Then, when asked about the indictment, I could state a positive answer based on my hostility to Trump, a non-answer because I haven’t considered the indictment, or a negative response because (remembering a different stored opinion), I don’t trust the legal system. I would hold private opinions in my memory; the technical challenge is to describe them accurately using a standardized instrument.

Zaller & Feldman (1992, p. 586) argue that people generate potentially conflicting opinions on the same topic over time and store them all in their memory, retrieving a literally random one when asked about the topic. Then my real view is my whole set of relevant opinions, and the task is to depict that whole collection accurately. For instance, hard-core Democrats probably hold 95% anti-Trump opinions in their memories, but swing voters may be 50/50.

This model is fundamentally flawed if “opining” is an activity that people undertake in relationship with others for a purpose. In that case, an interview with a survey researcher is an odd kind of interaction that may not yield knowledge that generalizes to other contexts. Perrin and McFarland 2011 (p. 101) argue that “well-documented anomalies [in survey research,] such as question wording, question order, nonresponse, and even fictional questions on surveys … raise the possibility that responses are produced, not just evoked, by the artificial interaction between interviewer and respondent. Public opinion should be understood as collective, not just aggregated; dynamic, not static; and reactive, not unidirectional.”

Similarly, Paul Sniderman (2107, around p. 28) analyzes a survey respondent as a person in a conversation, and he applies the “maxims” that the philosopher H. P. (Paul) Grice found operative in ordinary conversations.

According to Grice (1967), when a regular conversation goes reasonably well, the speakers try to give relevant, sincere, and concise answers to questions and expect the same from one another. Thus, when a pollster suddenly calls you and asks what you think about the Trump indictment, you may try to give that person what they want: a concise and clear answer that is consistent with your real views. If you have no opinions, you may generate one to be helpful. You will also try to glean what you can from the interviewer, including any reasons that Trump may be guilty or innocent.

Rather than being manipulated by the question’s wording or holding soft and malleable opinions, you may instead be striving to agree–if possible–with your interlocutor, as you normally would with a friend. If the way a question is posed makes you think that Trump deserves to be indicted (even if that was not the pollster’s intention), you may agreeably opine in favor of the indictment. This behavior is not unreasonable; it reflects an effort to learn from the conversation. However, you might have reasons to distrust the pollster. You might believe that the media violates Grice’s maxims, in which case it may be attractive to give them an insincere response in return.

Again, an interaction with a pollster is a strange one, with no clear benefits for the respondent and minimal cues about the interviewer’s trustworthiness. Indeed, interviewers, who are paid phone-bank employees, are instructed not to disclose their own views, as normal people would. As Nina Eliasoph writes:

Research on inner beliefs, ideologies, and values is usually based on surveys, which ask people questions about which they may never have thought, and most likely have never discussed. … The researcher analyzing survey responses must then read political motives and understandings back into the responses, trying to reconstruct the private mental processes the interviewee ‘must have’ undergone to reach a response. That type of research would more aptly be called private opinion research, since it attempts to bypass the social nature of opinions, and tries to wrench the personally embodied, sociable display of opinions away from the opinions themselves. But in everyday life, opinions always come in a form: flippant, ironic, anxious, determined, abstractly distant, earnest, engaged, effortful. And they always come in a context–a bar, a charity group, a family, a picket–that implicitly invites or discourages debate (Eliasoph 1998 p. 18)

I agree with this line of argument, which suggests skepticism about survey research (even though I conduct and use such research).

I would add that each of our opinions also stands in relationships with some of our other opinions. As we opine during conversations with other human beings, we are more or less conscious that the various things we say (or privately believe) should fit together. Not only should each proposition that we endorse be logically consistent with the others, but they should tend to explain or entail each other.

Testing our own consistency is challenging because we do not have access to a database of all our stored opinions that we can audit for contradictions and gaps. On the contrary, a few of our own opinions are salient for us at a given time because of the situation we’re in, including what other people have recently said or asked. We lack the cognitive capacity to retrieve all the other things we have ever felt or said, some of which could easily be contradictory. Most of our own opinions lie beyond the illumination of the present.

It would be easier to achieve consistency if that were the only criterion for adopting a new view. We might then be able to retrieve our closely related existing opinions and reject any new idea if it conflicts with them. For example, I might hold a positive or negative view of Trump, and anytime anyone asks me anything relevant to him, I would decide whether it was good or bad for Trump and opine accordingly.

But that is the foolish consistency of a closed mind. Real people, confronted with the complexity and nuance of real issues, often endorse views that do not cohere so neatly, even in close succession. For instance, Jennifer Hochschild (1981, p. 252) describes a subject who is ambivalent about welfare policy because he believes in ideas of hard-work and independence but also that the rich are mostly un-deserving and that poor people need help. The various views that he shares with Hochschild may all be valid; it is only from the perspective of someone who wants this person to make a decision about welfare policy that they are even in tension. But this interviewee is not a legislator or referendum-voter who confronts a decision. The individual is describing many aspects of a complex situation.

Imagine that people can only recall and think about a few ideas at a time, and those ideas are completely relative to the context—for instance, dependent on how the interviewer has phrased the question. Then we are all blundering around in the dark. But that model does not fit familiar examples. Many people use a few closely related opinions as frequent reference points when they evaluate current events and issues. Some such opinions are invidious, such as racial bias against Alvin Bragg. But some are defensible and based in prior arguments and experiences. For instance, maybe the main flaw of current American politics is partisan polarization, and the Trump indictment will exacerbate the problem. Or perhaps Trump is a 21st-century populist authoritarian, and anything that checks his impunity is valuable.

General doctrines like these can operate as biases. Individuals who always return to a few premises make poor discussion-partners and may have trouble learning from others. Yet people with general views do not randomly select opinions from their stores of prior ideas. They hold organized bodies of thought that may have merit. And other cases reflect more responsiveness. For example:

  • A person is asked about the indictment of Trump, retrieves several previously formed opinions about the defendant, the US legal system, the relationship between prosecutions and elections, and the witness Michael Cohen and tries to construct a view that makes sense of these propositions.
  • A person (like G, above) reacts negatively to an annoying pro-Trump interlocutor and adopts a positive opinion of the indictment, but then she recalls that she generally opposes criminal prosecutions in comparable cases and decides to withdraw her view.
  • A person is not sure what to make of the indictment, reads several arguments on both sides, and remains uncertain but now holds a more complex view of the issues.

Speaking for myself … I recently encountered an argument that was new to me: the Sixth Amendment requires charges to be publicly disclosed at the time of arrest, which the New York prosecutors failed to do with Trump. That argument challenged my prior view of the case. I worked to incorporate it into my thinking. I struggled between: 1) “Good point; this case really is flawed,” and 2) “Since Trump can file a petition to get all charges disclosed, his constitutional rights are protected.” Whether my ultimate conclusion is wise or not, I was trying to reason based on inputs from other people.

I would not claim that any of these responses is typical. They involve the labor of forming and recalling one’s own views, absorbing others’ opinions, and trying to harmonize them, which requires some civic concern and some intellectual rigor and humility. We all often fail on those counts.

I would only claim that these forms of reasoning occur. Their very possibility implies that we may hold ideas that relate to each other, even as we interact with other people who have ideas of their own. This implies quite a different model of public opinion than the now-standard one, which envisions that individuals store lists of views in their private memories and reveal them–more or less honestly–when asked.

See also:  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuonMapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; against the idea of viewpoint diversity. Sources: Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland, “Social Theory and Public Opinion,” Annual Review of Sociology 2011. 37:87–107; Zaller, J. & Feldman, S. (1992), A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3: 579-616; Sniderman, Paul M.. The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (Yale University Press, 2017); Grice, Paul, “Logic and Conversation” (1967), in Grice, Studies in the Ways of Words (Harvard, 1989), pp. 22-44; Eliasoph, Nina, Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 1998); Hochschild, Jennifer. 1981. What’s Fair? American’s Attitudes Toward Distributive Justice. Harvard University Press

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.