What is Public Opinion? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Public Opinion?
  • 0:39 Where Does Public…
  • 1:33 How Do We Know What…
  • 4:27 How Do We Know if…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

In this lesson, you'll discover how people develop their political opinions, and you'll learn about methods of measuring and interpreting public opinion.

What Is Public Opinion?

Public opinion is the measure of what the public thinks about a particular issue, party, or individual political figure. Historically, it's been pretty difficult to accurately measure what the public thinks about a particular issue. However, most forms of democracy are based on the understanding that the government will function with the interests of their people in mind. We can find an acknowledgment of the people's role in many historical documents, including the Constitution of the United States, which begins with the phrase 'We, the People.' This 1940s poster from the National Archives highlights the importance of public opinion in policymaking (see video).

Where Does Public Opinion Come From?

There's a lot of things that come into play when discussing how people form opinions. Developing your opinions about issues affecting the world around you is a lifelong process that social scientists call political socialization. You'll have different life factors than everyone else, but for most people, factors like family beliefs, peer beliefs, education, religious beliefs, and media depictions have the greatest impact on their political opinions.

The primacy tendency, or the theory that impressions acquired during childhood are the most long-lasting and influential, guides many studies of public opinion. For example, if your parents or other authority figures, like teachers, regularly included you in patriotic activities such the Fourth of July or the Pledge of Allegiance, social scientists would conclude that you are more likely to be patriotic and supportive of the U.S. government as an adult.

How Do We Know What People Think?

There's a lot of ways to measure public opinion, and there's usually a lot of disagreement about which method is the most accurate.

One way to measure public opinion is through examining voter records, but not everyone is eligible to vote, and among those who are eligible to vote, not everyone will vote in a given election. For example, you might have voted in the 2008 election but skipped the 2010 midterm election for various reasons.

In addition to voting, people can also participate in meetings, protests, and assemblies regarding a particular issue. While it's probably interesting to those involved, this kind of public opinion expression can be pretty hard to measure. Like voting, measuring public opinion by the number of people involved doesn't account for those who were unable to participate. Think about this way: not everyone at a rally necessarily supports the goals of those running the rally. They might just be there to show support for their friends and family.

By far the most-used method of measuring public opinion is the public opinion poll, a survey of a small group of people regarding their opinions about a particular policy area. For example, this graph shows the change in public opinion regarding interracial marriage based on public opinion data from Gallup, Inc (see video). There are many different ways of conducting a public opinion poll, but the most accurate method is to take a random sample. In a random sample, social scientists attempt to create an unbiased grouping to study by asking a randomly selected group to participate in public opinion polling.

Achieving a totally random group can be really hard, but modern polling companies have gained an advantage with the use of random digit dialing. This randomly dials phone numbers and asks the person who answers to participate in polling. Since 90% of Americans have a telephone or cell phone, this method allows for almost everyone to have an equal chance of being dialed, thus ensuring a high-quality sample.

In some cases, polling organizations prefer to create an unscientific poll, a method of polling that specifically targets people who would like to register their opinions. A good example of this in terms of social polling would be TV shows like 'American Idol,' where respondents are asked to call or text a specific number to express their opinions. In this kind of poll, the polling organization only cares about the opinions of those already engaged with the show.

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