Friday Five-Hundred: “They Think What?!”

Ever find yourself baffled by the words that exit someone’s face-hole? I sure do and if you’ve spent any quality time with me you’re aware that it sends me into a fit.

Go through social media or watch some of the news (any will do, even the neutered public ones), and you’re bound to find a story where somebody professed some incredibly uninformed thought. Ever catch yourself going, “They really think that?!”

One that provoked my ire involved a poll which reported that 43% Republicans think the President is a Muslim. I can tackle the lunacy of this in another post, but for the meantime stick with me and think about the poll itself. Seeing the results of the poll may lead you to wonder if there’s a bunch of GOPers bumbling through the world in trepidation of a Muslim president. Science says, “Kind of.”

There are some things you should know before we progress. Political scientists use a basic model (see below) to frame people’s opinions. Here’s the quick and dirty on how it works.

Opinion Model

Inputs, like media and interactions, are where you get your life outlook. Beliefs are things that you know. They can be proven true or false. A value is a judgment on the morality or ethics (good or bad) of an issue. When values and beliefs come together they form a belief system, a fun term that sums up the complex matrix of ideas that roll around in your melon.

When that system is engaged by an outside stimulus, such as an idea or question, an attitude is formed. That’s that warm or bristly feeling you get. Finally, that attitude manifests itself in the form of an opinion when it becomes expressed through words, deeds, or verses.

Whew! Now we can move on.

A political scientist, Chris Achen, wrote that Americans have “true attitudes.” Essentially, he claimed we go through the world with values and ideas tumbling through our minds, the problem is that surveys are simply inept at accessing those core beliefs. However, two other gentlemen, John Zaller and Stanley Feldman, argued instead that people are ambivalent about most things. They said opinions are only expressed based on what you can think of at the moment.

If an analogy is your thing, try this on. Your special someone is coming over for a dinner date. You weren’t thinking about it, so when the time came, you put together a quick meal from whatever you had available. If there wasn’t much to work with, dinner was probably awful and left a terrible impression. Public opinion is a measurement of what’s in everyone’s mental kitchen, at that moment.

What does it all mean? Political polls, like the one mentioned above, really only capture a person’s reaction that’s based on the limited knowledge they’ve got. If you’re not informed (an amendable condition) you aren’t good or evil, just one of the sheeple.

So keep learning, impress your friends with this, or supplant the robot overlords. Go forth and be fearless.

Story about the poll: 

Zaller & Feldman Paper:


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