In the general slander of public opinion and public opinion polls ("leaders who pander to public opinion lose respect", see John Kay in the Financial Times), people often mistake attitudes for opinion. It's a technical detail, but from a governance reform view it makes all the difference. Attitudes are predispositions. Opinions are expressions, speech acts. Opinions precede and determine behavior. And that, after all, is where we aim in working toward governance reform.
This technical detail is relevant when we want governments to heed public opinion, and if governments then turn to opinion polls to discern said opinion. Ouch! says the serious student of public opinion. Here's what you get in opinion polls: Someone calls you at a very inconvenient time (dinner's on the stove!) and asks whether you are in favor of the latest policy of the month, somewhat in favor, a little in favor, or not in favor at all. You answer off the top of your head because at this very moment you have neither the time nor the inclination to actually think about this seriously. You just came home after a long work day and care more about dinner than about the policy of the month. So you answer according to your general feeling toward this policy, but you don't consider implications, alternatives etc. If you do, dinner will be cold by the time you've made up your mind, and the pollster will hang up anyway because she gets paid per completed interview. What you get in this kind of snapshot opinion polls are attitudes at best, random impulses at worst.
Attitudes are broad predispositions that are not necessarily consistent with what is eventually expressed and acted upon. According to public opinion scholar Vincent Price, an attitude is “a global enduring orientation" toward issues, whereas, as research psychologist G. D. Wiebe states, opinions are “calculated for purposes of social interaction, for use in public”. Attitudes are stable but barely structured, subjective, and intuitive neural patterns that consist of many different experiences. Attitudes are assumed to be more affective than cognitive, whereas opinions are more cognitive than affective.
If you think your opinion actually matters, you will take dinner off the stove for the time being and consider the question for a moment. Then you will probably start discussing with the pollster about how it all depends. Opinions precede and determine behavior. They are well considered. They are not expressed on the spur of the moment. An opinion does not necessarily represent an individual’s attitude because attitudes are “states of mind unencumbered by the restrictions of deciding what one will actually do about the issue” (Wiebe, 1953, p. 340).
So, if politicians turn to opinion polls as "here's what the people want" they base their policies on my state of mind right before dinner. Researching attitudes is very valuable for psychology, but for students of public opinion and governance, opinions seem more relevant. Unfortunately, these "real" opinions are hard to measure. It takes thorough research and innovative approaches such as Deliberative Polling - which of course limits the scope of what you can find out about public opinion. And in any event, it's not going to happen before I had my dinner.
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