The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion

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The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion
Author John Zaller
Language English
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Publication date
Pages 381
ISBN 978-0-521-40786-1
OCLC 25050973
303.3/8 20
LC Class HM261 .Z35 1992

The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion is a 1992 non-fiction book by political scientist John Zaller that examines the processes by which individuals form and express political opinions and the implications this has for public opinion research. The book has been called "the single most important book on public opinion since V. O. Key's 1961 classic, Public Opinion and American Democracy."[1]

Zaller argues that public opinion is heavily influenced by exposure to elite discourse on political matters. He attributes variation in political attitudes between individuals to individual-level differences in receptivity to this discourse, in terms of political awareness (i.e., does an individual receive political messages from elites?) and concordance with prior beliefs (i.e., do the messages received conform to an individual’s basic political values?).

By rejecting the notion that voters hold single preferences (or, in fact, that individuals possess structured belief systems from which they can derive policy preferences), the book challenges the usefulness of public opinion surveys. Zaller’s argument as to how individuals form survey responses is effectively summarized by his "Receive-Accept-Sample" (RAS) model, according to which the opinions individuals express reflect the messages they have received (contingent on the degree of political awareness), accepted (contingent on consistency with prior beliefs), and sampled from (contingent on what issues hold priority at that moment).

Politically more aware individuals are more likely to pick up ("receive") elite messages. They are also, due to their exposure to multiple and often conflicting messages, less likely to accept messages that are inconsistent with their prior attitudes (i.e., they are more selective). Less aware individuals receive fewer messages, but are more likely to accept them (even if they are conflicting). Thus, Zaller argues, there is a positive correlation between political awareness and the consistency and stability of political opinions.

Following the RAS model, political opinion surveys are not valid measures of public opinion as they do not measure an individual’s "true preferences", but instead the balance of considerations that are most salient to the surveyee at that particular instant. In Zaller’s words, "most of what gets measured as public opinion does not exist except in the presence of a pollster".[2]

In a subsequent article, Zaller backtracks from his argument in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion and maintains that the influence elites exercise over public opinion is less than he had originally claimed. He writes:[3]

However poorly informed, psychologically driven, and "mass-mediated" public opinion may be, it is capable of recognizing and focusing on its own conception of what matters.


  1. ^ Kenski, Henry C.; Zaller, John R. (September 1993). "The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, by John Zaller". Contemporary Sociology. Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 22, No. 5. 22 (5): 738–739. doi:10.2307/2074664. JSTOR 2074664. 
  2. ^ Zaller, John (1992-08-28). The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 265. ISBN 978-0-521-40786-1. 
  3. ^ Zaller, John R. (June 1998). "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science". PS: Political Science and Politics. PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 31, No. 2. 31 (2): 182–189. doi:10.2307/420248. JSTOR 420248. 

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