Do Canadians have opinions?

If you ask them about issues, voters will tell you what they think. But do they really have opinions?


Research in political science, psychology and economics has given us reason to question the extent to which individuals have “true,” stable opinions. And yet, as Election 42 unfolds, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Canadian who doesn’t have something to say about the parties, the leaders, taxes, or war. So what’s going on? Our series on the intersection between psychology and politics continues.

I once asked my dad for his opinion about immigration in Canada. This was during the 2011 election, and he’d called me, wondering for whom he should vote. I was trying to get an idea of where he stood politically, what his values were, and what his preferences might be. He was himself an immigrant, having come to Canada from the United States in the 1960s.

He had strong thoughts on the matter; most people, when pushed even a bit, do. I made a commitment to follow up a few more times as the election unfolded. I asked him about different issues every week or so, always sneaking in the immigration question in different ways. His answers seemed to vary with the changing headlines, the time of day, and his mood. By my count, he gave me five different (inconsistent) positions on the immigration issue alone. I’m not sure whom he voted for.

In this story, my dad represents what researchers call an “N” of one. That means there’s only one research subject or data point. More commonly, in social science research, an N of one is known as an anecdote, because it’s a one-off story that tells us very little about broader trends or phenomena. And, as we know—say it with me, people who comment on articles online—“the plural of anecdote is not data.”

But I’m willing to bet that story resonated with you, that you’ve had similar experiences yourself or with others. That’s because what my dad exhibited is behaviour that’s common for people around the world. Like them, he might not really have an opinion. Instead, when asked what he thought, he sampled from whatever was at the top of his mind and relied on mental shortcuts derived from the world of cues around him.

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Is your “opinion” whatever you’re thinking about at the moment?

One of the leading theories of mass public opinion comes from American research carried out by John Zaller. In The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, Zaller argues that individuals don’t have “true” opinions. Instead, when asked how they feel about a particular issue, they engage in a thought process known as “receive-accept-sample” (R-A-S).

How does this work? Say a pollster calls you up to ask what you think about refugees. Presumably you know a little bit about the issue, since it’s been covered extensively (and recently) in the media. But you’re no expert. Rather than tell the pollster you don’t know, you draw from a sample of considerations off the top of your head. This is the (S), and the final stage, from R-A-S.

What you’re doing is sampling from information you have received (R) from reading the news, watching pundits on television, talking to others, and observing the world around you. This is information you’ve broadly accepted (A) as more or less consistent with other beliefs you have. (There’s probably some room here for ideological and other inconsistencies, since, you know, we’re flexible, complex, strange, broken and wonderful creatures.)

More from David Moscrop: What does politics look like to a partisan?

According to Zaller, in the R-A-S model, your opinion is formed on the fly, because you’ve been asked for one. How obliging! It’s not drawn or reasoned out from a coherent ideology, or selected out from an entrenched set of preferences. Instead, your opinion is just conjured up when it’s needed.

Now, the more politically aware you are, the more likely you are to receive messages from elites, but you’ll also be less likely to accept those messages, since you’re exposed to more (and conflicting) information. Those who are largely politically unaware will receive fewer messages (because they aren’t paying attention), but will accept more of what they do receive (because they have less to compare it to).

Zaller’s 1992 take on public opinion is probably a bit overstated. Sometimes the public is capable of expressing a coherent, consistent opinion about what’s important to it. Even Zaller later revised his thesis. But the R-A-S model seems to apply quite often. And even when it doesn’t, your opinion is still affected by all kinds of subtle, even non-consciously processed, phenomena and considerations.

You and your brain are so, so, so, so lazy. So lazy.

You’ve been asked for an opinion. And, as we’ve established, you’re obliging. So you’ve come up with one. Where does that come from? As I mentioned, it comes largely from the news media and the world around you. But what does that mean, “the world around you?”

Take a look around. Glance at your environment. Check your Twitter feed. Pull up your Facebook newsfeed. Scan the newspaper headlines. Check your gut. Recall what your friend or colleague last said to you when you talked about politics. Think about some things you like or dislike. Call your mother, tell her you love her. I’ll wait.

Heuristics. You were just exposed to—and relied upon—a bunch of them. Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts or rough-and-ready mental processes for coming to a decision that’s, well, good enough. (Or, as I like to say, “close enough for jazz.”) There are dozens of heuristics we routinely rely on to make decisions every day.

Related: What leaders say is important. How they say it also matters.

These shortcuts simplify our lives and allow us to get things done quickly and efficiently. They are shaped, activated and executed all the time, throughout our entire lives, and usually we aren’t even aware we’re relying on them. I’ll discuss a couple now in the context of the election, but if you’re interested in knowing more, have a look at the “further reading” section.

Availability: One of the most common shortcuts is the availability heuristic. Simply put, this occurs when you draw on the first idea, consideration, or example that comes to mind when you’re pressed to make a decision. Why? Well, it could be that we implicitly assume that because something comes easily to mind, it must be important.

In the current federal election, the availability heuristic is important. The economy is, as always, a major issue. But so are security, law and order. Terrorism, in particular, stands out. That’s because, when asked about issues that are important, terrorism comes to mind, because it is so evocative and examples are almost always readily available.

Then, most Canadians of voting age, when specifically asked about terrorism, will think of 9/11, or maybe the war in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. These are powerful, evocative and shared moments of foreign terrorism that come easily to mind. Fewer will think of white supremacists or domestic terrorism. Still fewer will call to mind the fact that only two people in Canada have been killed by terrorist attacks in the last 10 years. What comes to mind easiest often seems most important.

Anchoring: This is another important heuristic. Anchoring occurs when some early piece of information affects a subsequent decision (whether it’s relevant or not). Say I tell you that Party A has come out with a proposal to raise the marginal tax rate on the bottom tax bracket by three per cent. (This is just an example, not an actual proposal.) That’s the anchor. It may shock you, or it may not. But whichever it is, keep three per cent in mind.

If I then tell you that Party B wants to raise the rate by 1.5 per cent, it will seem more reasonable than if I had told you that Party A wants to raise taxes by only 0.5 per cent. Your evaluation of the 1.5 per cent increase is going to be affected by the anchor of three per cent, and is likely to affect your opinion of what we should do about taxes.

The same phenomenon applies to consumer products. Ever wonder why companies have an outrageously expensive “top of the line” model that few can afford? Well, it helps them sell a lot more “reasonably priced” mid-range models. I mean, $3,000 for a laptop?! That’s insane! Now, $1,800, on the other hand . . .

Affect: I have a hard time being critical of people I like. I have to do it for a living. As an academic and a writer, it’s a huge part of my job. People I don’t like? Well, that’s much easier. I often suspect I’m being harder on those I don’t happen to care for. I try to be objective, of course, but it’s hard to escape the affect heuristic.

This heuristic is complicated and involves several emotional elementsI’ll sort into positive and and negative, or like/dislike, for the purpose of this article. If you’re interested in more, see Robert Zajonc’s work in the further reading list below. But I can summarize it roughly as this: The affect heuristic is used by swapping out a tough question and replacing it with one easy question: Do I like or dislike this person/party/etc.?

Related: You’re not the voter you think you are.

In a political campaign, it’s obvious how important affect is. Do I like this candidate? Do I dislike him? These initial, often automatic, emotional assessments affect how you judge a person. We tend to let people we like off the hook more readily than those we dislike. We tend to evaluate the actions and ideas of people we like more favourably than others, too. Why? In part, it’s an age-old cognitive sorting mechanism that saves time.

Research by Fred Cutler at the University of British Columbia found that individuals prefer candidates who are “like them”—that’s to say, who share a similar sociodemographic status. This fosters positive affect. It also lends a major advantage to candidates (and parties) who become well-liked. For them, when the inevitable scandal or policy foul-up or social-media slip happens (a.k.a. every single day of Election 42), your sympathetic disposition toward them will reduce, even eliminate, negative consequences. I suppose we could call this the “Joe Biden effect.”

Well that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Obviously, people have preferences. They have opinions. But research suggests we have good reason to question how deeply these opinions and preferences are held, how coherent and consistent they are, and what motivates individuals to hold them.

The next time you’re asked your opinion, keep all of this in mind. Try to interrogate yourself a bit. Why do you hold this particular opinion? Where is it coming from? How does it fit into your worldview? What considerations around you at the moment, and in the recent and distant past, are at work?

The more aware we are of what’s going on with our biases and our use of heuristics, the better placed we are to understand our own thought processes and the preferences and opinions they produce. We’ll also be better prepared to make good decisions—including for whom we cast our ballot on Oct. 19.

Further reading

John Zaller. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge University Press. 1992.

John Zaller. Monica Lewinsky’s Contribution to Political Science. Political Science and Politics. June 1998.

Fred Cutler. The Simplest Shortcut of All. The Journal of Politics. May 2002.

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011.

Robert Zajonc. Feeling and Thinking. American Psychologist. February 1980.

Daniel Dennett. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Norton and Co. 2014.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Nudge. Penguin. 2009.

Thomas Gilovich and Dale Griffin. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Cambridge University Press. 2002.

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