Cantril's Laws of Public Opinion

Instructor: Brianna Whiting

Brianna has a masters of education in educational leadership, a DBA business management, and a BS in animal science.

Have you ever wondered what influences our opinions? In this lesson we will learn about Hadley Cantril and his Laws of Public Opinion. We will look at each law and walk through an example to help better explain the concept.

Forming Opinions

We have all seen countless celebrities in the news and on magazine covers. Sometimes the story is about beauty products they use, and sometimes it is about their latest movie. But, sometimes the story is a bit more controversial. Sometimes the story is shocking and unexpected, which causes us and the rest of the public to form or change our opinions about that particular celebrity.

Have you ever wondered why we change our opinions? What causes us to feel the way we do about something or someone? In this lesson we will learn about Hadley Cantril's Laws of Public Opinion to help us understand what elements often influence us and ultimately help form our opinions.

Cantril's Laws of Public Opinion

Working as a psychologist, Hadley Cantril created what is known as the Laws of Public Opinion. These 15 laws help us understand what causes us to form opinions. In this section we will look at each law, with a more in-depth view for some of the common laws. It is important to point out that while our example centers around a celebrity, Cantril's laws are about public opinion in general and not just celebrities.

1. Opinion is sensitive to important events - this means that as events occur, our opinions begin to develop. Let's take Martha Stewart, for example. When we were first introduced to her, we pictured a sweet, down-to-earth homemaker. Our opinion of her was that she was an honest, trustworthy celebrity. However, as the news broke of her less-than-honest business activities, and she was later thrown in jail, our opinion quickly changed. This is because we, as members of the public, are sensitive to important events.

2. and 3. Events are more powerful in determining opinion than words. Again, this refers to events that may shock us or catch us off guard. The more outrageous the story, the more powerful it is in shaping our opinion. As the details of Martha Stewarts's actions unraveled, the events were more influential on our opinions than any words that were spoken.

4. When an individual is looking for 'reliable' information, words might have maximum importance.

5. The public usually does not plan for an emergency. Instead, it reacts to the emergency.

6. Opinions are often formed based on how involved or connected we are to the person or situation. This is known as self-interest.

7. Opinions often do not stick around long. This is unless events continue to promote the opinion or there is some self-interest involved.

8. Opinions are difficult to change when self-interest is involved. We all have our own values and feelings about what is right and wrong. These feelings make it difficult to sway our opinion about something we feel deeply about. So, because many of us feel it is important to abide by the laws and not participate in criminal activity, especially if you are a role model, when Martha Stewart broke the law, many of us had a hard time accepting that she may still be a good person. Instead we may have immediately marked her as a bad person and a criminal.

9. In a democracy, public opinion is typically formulated before official policy, particularly when self-interest is involved.

10. Opinions can be changed when a new fact comes to light.

11. During crucial times, we become more aware of the adequacy of our leaders, and may trust them more or less to make proper decisions.

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