Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (1992) addresses a puzzle that has longed plagued political science research: How do members of the public actually formulate political preferences and what implications does this process have for understanding preference change? A central theme of the book is the problem of inconsistent results from political opinion surveys. These surveys are an important measure of political preferences, and Zaller’s work gives us important reasons to doubt their reliability. But Zaller’s overall goal “is to integrate as much as possible the dynamics of public opinion within a cohesive theoretical system” (1), which he does by way of a meta-analysis of public opinion research. In the first half of the book, Zaller pieces together his theory of mass opinion formation, which he spells out in a series of axioms and deductions. In the second half, he provides an impressive array of empirical validation for his theory. In this post, I seek simply to summarize the chief elements of Zaller’s theory, focusing primarily on chapters 3 and 6, the core theoretical chapters.
After a broad literature review demonstrating the general ignorance of members of the American public on political matters and the inexplicable variability of survey responses, Zaller lays out four axioms which form the foundation of his theory and from which he draws several testable deductions. Testing these deductions occupy the latter half of the book. I will briefly discuss each of these axioms and Zaller’s most significant deduction before offering concluding thoughts.
Axiom 1, the Reception Axiom, holds that “the greater a person’s cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely he or she is to be exposed to and comprehend—in a word, to receive—political messages concerning that issue” (42). Zaller chooses cognitive engagement over political interest because the former focuses on individual acquisition of political information, while the latter less helpfully focuses on affective involvement. “For example,” Zaller adds, “people who score higher on tests of political knowledge are substantially more stable in their attitude reports than people who score low in political awareness; however, people who describe themselves as highly interested in politics…are not significantly more stable than persons who express little political interest” (43). Thus, Zaller’s measure of cognitive engagement consists of a neutral test of political knowledge involving questions on public affairs, which he finds to be more reliable gauge of an individual’s level of attentiveness to politics.
Axiom 2, the Resistance Axiom, holds that “people tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but they do so only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions” (44). In other words, individuals are resistant to arguments from “the other side” of the political spectrum but only to the extent that they are aware that those arguments are from the other side. Here, Zaller relies on psychological literature indicating that individuals more readily embrace ideas from trusted sources and are highly skeptical of ideas from rival sources.
Axiom 3, the Accessibility Axiom, holds that “the more recently a consideration has been called to mind or thought about, the less time it takes to receive that consideration or related considerations from memory and bring them to the top of the head for use” (48). This insight, which Zaller draws from cognitive psychology, means that individuals are not super computers capable of holding all the information they have previously consumed readily available at once for application to a given question; rather, they most easily recall ideas which they have thought about most recently.
Axiom 4, the Response Axiom, is closely related to Axiom 3. It holds that “individuals answer survey questions by averaging across the considerations that are immediately salient or accessible to them” (49). Simply, individuals respond to survey questions by sampling only from those ideas that most readily spring to mind, and their opinion statement constitutes a mere composite of perhaps diverse and even conflicting ideas.
Zaller’s most theoretically significant deduction, the Ambivalence Deduction, follows most directly from Axiom 2 and combines with Axiom 4 in interesting ways. If, as Axiom 2 states, individuals can adequately resist arguments inconsistent with their attitudes only to the extent that those individuals are cued in to the directional implications of those arguments, and members of the mass public are as generally ignorant of politics as the literature suggests, it follows that members of the mass public might unwittingly hold internally inconsistent political attitudes. Thus, politically inattentive people can be expected to demonstrate a high degree of ambivalence.
Understanding the variability in survey responses then requires only the combination of the Ambivalence Deduction and Axiom 4, the Response Axiom. If most members of the mass public are walking repositories of inconsistent political ideas, and answer survey queries by a haphazard sampling of those ideas which are most cognitively available, survey responses may tell us more about the most recent news coverage to which a given respondent has been exposed or the framing of the survey question than the respondents’ fixed true attitudes. Zaller recounts a host of survey results which demonstrate this point rather neatly. He then asserts probably the most significant aspect of his theory: “individuals do not typically possess ‘true attitudes’ on issues, as conventional theorizing assumes, but a series of partially independent and often inconsistent ones…[T]rue attitude seems a grievous simplification” (93).
But most of the heavy lifting in Zaller’s theory is done by the Ambivalence Deduction and the Response Axiom working in tandem. One example of this is found in chapter six, “The mainstream and polarization effects.” This chapter opens with an examination of public reaction to Nixon’s 1971 speech announcing wage and price controls and the reversal of support for the war in Vietnam in the 1960’s. Zaller’s aim is to account for the effects of elite communications on mass attitudes by examining a case “in which elites achieve a consensus or near consensus on a value or policy” (Nixonian controls) and another “in which elites disagree along partisan or ideological lines” (97) (Vietnam in the late 1960’s).
In the case of Nixonian wage and price controls, public support grew after Nixon’s speech on the subject and remained high among members of the public as conservative and liberal elites embraced the policy. Likewise, public support for the war in Vietnam was high during the early 1960’s while elites provided unified support. Zaller calls this the mainstream effect—when members of the mass public receive the same cues from partisan elites, mass liberals and conservatives can be expected to be very close in their attitudes. But, by the late 1960’s, elite support had divided, with conservative elites maintaining support for the war and liberal elites turning in opposition. Zaller notes that, when elites divided over the war, “increases in awareness [were] associated with greater polarization of the attitudes of mass liberals and conservatives” (102). Simply, the more cognitively engaged members of the mass public received more cues from their respective elites and were more resistant to cues from “the other side.” This is the polarization effect and shows the power of Zaller’s model.
Though Zaller presents a wide range of empirical support for the mainstream and polarization effects, the implied causation—from elite preference formation, to elite cues, to mass preference formation—is a hard pill to swallow. Could there be some factor driving elite preference change and mass preference change? For example, educated mass liberals began to change their mind about the war around the same time educated elite liberals began to change their mind about the war. Elite influence is one plausible explanation, but could it not be that individuals who are similarly disposed, educated, and socialized will tend to react similarly to political events? Moreover, once one considers that similarly educated elite liberals react similarly to educated mass liberals, the partition erected by terms like “elite” and “mass” begins to appear rather thin.
One implication from Zaller’s model is that polarization may be here to stay. Recall from the Resistance Axiom that “people tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but they do so only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions” (44). Members of the mass public are predicted to be ambivalent to the extent that they are inundated with messages from both sides of the American ideological divide and are unable to discern the source of each message. Thus, an inattentive liberal (or conservative) member of the mass public is likely to be receptive to and sympathetic with rival arguments confronted in the public sphere. But since Zaller’s influential book was initially published in 1992, Americans have become even more atomized in their lifestyles and find less occasion to rub elbows with persons with whom they are likely to disagree (See my brief post on the subject here). Meanwhile, news media outlets catering to niche audiences have proliferated, effectively insulating the consumer of public information from rival views (or facts?). If Zaller is correct about the effects of elite influence on mass opinion, Americans may become less ambivalent about politics but also less able to talk politics at the water-cooler or think dispassionately about public policy.