Sources of Individual Opinion and Effects on People’s Choices


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

Thinking about the sources of individual opinion, it can be said that people hold inconsistent and contradictory attitudes about matters all the time. And the less important something is felt to be, the more likely it is that there are varied feelings about it. A survey researcher, whose job it is to try to discern and evaluate public opinion, has to take these things into account.

An individual speaking into a microphone.
Individual opinion has three main sources. (Image: Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock)

Self-Interest, the First Source of Individual Opinion

The first source of individual opinion is self-interest. Many times, people hold views or attitudes they have because most likely it will benefit them personally. For example, wealthy people tend to have different preferences about tax policy than non-wealthy people. 

A study published in 2013 found that among wealthy people, 23% thought the government should provide a decent standard of living for those who are unemployed. However, 50% of the general public agreed with that statement. 

Self-interest might not matter that much when people are talking about views on food or movies, but when people are talking about specific government policies, self-interest can sometimes come into play. And if their self-interest aligns with a particular group of people, and they perceive that a policy will affect that group, their views about that policy will differ from those who don’t identify with that group.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US GovernmentWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Values, What Makes Things Matter

Values are the second source of individual opinion. Sometimes people’s personal values inform their attitudes over issues like crime, justice, charity, or the proper role of government in society. Personal values are often deeply embedded in experiences that shape human beings from childhood. 

The type of household people grew up in, the religious beliefs their parents shared with them, the behaviors that were reinforced by those in the community—all of these helped to form the personal values about what people think is important in the world. Values are a sort of foundation helping guide people’s lives, behaviors, and choices, and they’re often relied upon to form attitudes about politics.

Political Socialization Can Affect One’s Attitude

The third source of individual opinion is a process known as political socialization. Political socialization refers to the process by which people are exposed to politics and political ideas. Throughout life, people are exposed to politics through their families, their friends, their jobs, their communities, their religious organizations, all sorts of ways. 

An image of a hand chained to a microphone.
An individual’s opinion is influenced by his social context. (Image: Lion Day/Shutterstock)

Whereas values are a kind of permanent and foundational system for all aspects of life, political socialization can change throughout one’s life as social groups evolve. Scholars have revealed people’s political choices and attitudes are strongly influenced by their social context.

Part of the reason people are so influenced by their social surroundings when it comes to forming individual attitudes is that most people just don’t care about politics that much, and they don’t really know much about it. 

Ninety-one percent of Americans cannot name the current Supreme Court Chief Justice. One-third of Americans cannot list any rights that are guaranteed by the First Amendment. And only 40% of Americans know that the Senate has 100 members.

Learn more about where the Supreme Court meets politics.

The Concept of Rational Ignorance

It’s completely rational for people not to know stuff about government and politics. Political scientists have a name for this: rational ignorance. People lead busy lives, and most of them have nothing to do with government operations or politics. So, to learn about politics and government, which can be hugely complicated and confusing, if not chaotic, is a fairly costly endeavor. 

Therefore, even in a democracy where ultimately the people are supposed to be in charge, it’s completely rational for people not to know what’s going on or how everything works. In fact, it would be rather irrational to try to stay on top of everything all the time.

Learn more about how government affects the economy.

Heuristic Devices that Help Make Rational Choices

But regardless of how complicated and messy politics and government can be, people are still expected to express their opinions and vote from time to time. Therefore, people use cues, or information shortcuts, or what political scientists sometimes call heuristic devices, to help them make rational choices. 

An image of political parties participating in a political debate.
Political parties are one important heuristic device helping people decide how to vote. (Image: SeventyFour/Shutterstock)

These devices are signals that give people clues about what to vote for or which side of an issue best aligns with their values and preferences, even when they don’t know much about the substance of what they are being asked to form an opinion about.

There are lots of good cues that people use these days, but by far, the most important one is political parties.

Studies have demonstrated that when people utilize information shortcuts like political parties to help them decide how to vote, most of the time, people will make the same decision they would have even if they had encyclopedic information about the candidates.

Common Questions about Sources of Individual Opinion and Effects on People’s Choices

Q: What are the main sources of individual opinion?

The three main sources of individual opinion are self-interest, values, and political socialization. Self-interest speaks about people’s personal benefits, while values form one’s attitude toward the world. People’s attitudes and ideas might be affected by the political socialization process.

Q: What is the concept of rational ignorance?

It’s clear political socialization, one of the primary sources of individual opinion, can change individual attitudes by providing information about politics.  But on the other hand, most people don’t know much about politics due to their busy lives. This kind of ignorance is called rational ignorance.

Q: What are the heuristic devices?

Heuristic devices are cues that provide people with information about what or who to vote for even when they don’t know much about the substance of what they are being asked to form an opinion about. One of the most important devices is political parties.

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