He was a leading proponent of the broad idea of the "behavioral sciences", a field he saw as including areas such as public opinion. In Chapter 14 of Voting (1954), he enunciated what has become known as Berelson's paradox on democracy: while classical theories of its success assume voters committed to interest in public life, this fails to correspond with practical politics, while the system itself functions.
Berelson wrote a summary entitled The Great Debate on Cultural Democracy regarding the confrontation between mass society theorists and researchers for the media industries. Berelson asserted that the resolution of the debate was simple: just listen to mass communication researchers like himself as they develop useful answers to the issues raised by others.
He was born in Spokane, Washington. He majored in English at Whitman College, graduating in 1934. He took a library science degree at the University of Washington in 1936, and an English master's there in 1937. A doctoral degree in the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago, under the influence of Douglas Waples and completed in 1941, led him into the field of public opinion. From 1944 he was working in applied social research at Columbia University. He returned to Chicago in 1946, and in 1952 became head of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences set up by the Ford Foundation at Stanford University. He moved back to Chicago in 1957 and to Columbia in 1960.
- What Reading Does to People. A Summary of Evidence on the Social Effects of Reading and a Statement of Problems for Research. (1940), with Douglas Waples and Franklyn R. Bradshaw
- The People's Choice (1944) with Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Hazel Gaudet
- Reader in Public Opinion and Communication (1950) with Morris Janowitz
- Content Analysis in Communication Research (1952)
- Voting: a study of opinion formation in a presidential campaign with Paul F. Lazarsfeld and William N. McPhee
- The Behavioral Sciences Today (1963)
- Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings (1964) with Gary Steiner
- Geneva, 1965. Family planning and population programs. A review of world developments
- National Programmes in Family Planning. Achievements and Problems. (1969) editor
- Graduate Education in the United States
- "The Great Debate on Cultural Democracy"
- Robert M. Eisinger, The Evolution of Presidential Polling (2003), p. 15.
- Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (1970), pp. 5-6.
- Donald Granberg and Soren Holmberg, The Berelson Paradox Reconsidered: Intention-Behavior Changers in U.S. and Swedish Election Campaigns, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 530-550.
- Wayne A. Wiegand, Supplement to the Dictionary of American Library Biography (1990), biography pp. 12-15.
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 15, 2011.
- The Prentice Hall Reader, Sixth Edition Chapter 4 - Bernard R. Berelson
- David L. Sills, In Memoriam: Bernard Berelson, 1912-1979, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer, 1980), pp. 274–275
- W. Parker Mauldin, Bernard Berelson: 2 June 1912 -- 25 September 1979, Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 10, No. 10 (Oct., 1979), pp. 259–262