Public Agenda

The Seven Stages of Public Opinion

Public opinion is not static. People's views about an issue can develop and change over time from disconnected, poorly informed reactions to more thoughtful and considered conclusions, from changeable public opinion to settled public judgment.

This process evolves through seven distinct stages, according to Daniel Yankelovich, author, public opinion analyst and co-founder of Public Agenda. And unless one understands where people are in this process, survey results can frequently mislead.

People often approach an issue initially with strong, emotionally laden feelings and opinions, which tend to be unstable and changeable. People may not understand an issue or problem particularly well. They may not have thought through the consequences of their opinions, and resist confronting realistic costs and trade-offs.

The quality of public opinion at this stage is raw and unformed. However, when people's views have progressed through all seven stages of public opinion, their ideas become solid and stable, and they accept the consequences of the views they hold. When public opinion is fully developed, opinion surveys will reveal a reliable and stable picture of people's thinking, a picture which accurately reflects their values, priorities, and beliefs.

Stage 1 : Dawning Awareness

In this stage, people become aware of an issue, but do not yet feel a pressing need to take action. For instance, surveys show that most Americans say child care is a serious problem when they are questioned about it, but it rarely surfaces when people are asked to name the most important issues facing the country. People acknowledge the problem, but there is little real urgency. Americans are aware of many problems, but only a few rise to the top of their list of priorities. Distinguishing between awareness and urgency is essential to interpreting public opinion correctly.

Stage 2 : Greater Urgency

In Stage 2, people move beyond awareness to a sense of urgency. The dominant sentiment is often a panicky appeal to "do something!" Health care moved squarely into this second stage when the economic recession of the early 1990s had many people terrified about losing their jobs. Much of this anxiety was channeled into worry about insurance coverage. Although the health care issue had been kicking around for years, the public's concern rose sharply in economic bad times. In today's more comfortable economy, health care has receded as a top tier issue, and the debate centers more on the quality of care than on lack of insurance coverage.

Stage 3 : Reaching for Solutions

In the third stage, the public begins to look at alternatives for dealing with issues, converting free-floating concern into calls for action. Often, the public's attention focuses on choices that experts or policy-makers have crafted without being helped to understand the implications.

Since people do not fully understand the choices presented to them, stage three is a period of stunningly false endorsements, that is, the public expresses support for a proposal but backs down as soon as the costs and trade-offs are clarified.

In the health care debate, for example, people favor broad expansion of health care coverage for children, low-income workers and others, but support wavers when people consider the likely costs.

Stage 4 : Wishful Thinking

This is where the public's resistance to facing trade-offs is most manifest as people initially assume they can "have it all." On difficult issues ones that require significant change or sacrifice the public's wishful thinking must be overcome before people come to grips with more realistic solutions.

With health care, people start with the assumption that complete health care is a right, and that insurance should pay for any treatment that will save lives, regardless of the cost. Yet the public balks at increased premiums and out-of-pocket costs. The public shows resistance to facing realistic costs and trade-offs on the issue of health care.

Stage 5 : Weighing The Choices

In this stage, the public does "choice work": weighing the pros and cons of the alternatives for dealing with an issue. Stage 5 is hard work, as people come to understand that easy, cost-free solutions are unlikely to work, and that seemingly simple solutions may have down-sides. When the public has given a lot of thought to an issue and proposals for addressing it, they begin to hold firmly to their opinions even when presented with unpleasant consequences.

One example currently being played out around the country concerns raising standards in public schools. People are now more familiar with the debate, and their support for raising standards holds, even as they acknowledge that raising standards could result in higher drop-out rates, and even when they consider the prospect of failing youngsters who have tried hard, but have not learned what is expected. Stages 3, 4 and 5 can be grouped together under the general heading "working through" a term which encompasses rational thought as well as feelings and ethical concerns.

Stage 6 : Taking a Stand Intellectually

Stage 7 : Making a Responsible Judgment Morally and Emotionally

The two stages of resolution are linked, but different. People are quicker to accept change in their minds than in their hearts. In Stage 6 people accept an idea, but they usually do not act on it until they reach Stage 7.

It can take decades for some issues to arrive at the last stage of public opinion, and the issue of women in the work place is one such example. Over time the public has come to accept the idea of women working outside the home and strongly endorses ideas such as equal pay for equal work and non-discriminatory hiring.

The only kernel of the issue that remains even somewhat controversial is whether mothers of young children should work outside the home. Even here, although many Americans express concern about how children fare in today's working families, very few blame women for working for selfish reasons, and most believe that it is entirely possible to be a good mother while in the labor force.

The intellectual resolution of Stage 6 requires people to clarify fuzzy thinking, reconcile inconsistencies, consider relevant facts and new realities, and grasp the full consequences of choices. The emotional resolution of Stage 7 requires people to accommodate themselves to different situations, change their own thinking and behavior, and confront their own ambivalent feelings. The final two stages can be grouped together as the stages where the public comes to resolution about an issue.

For more information, see Coming to Public Judgement, Syracuse University Press, 1991, and "How Public Opinion Really Works," Fortune, October 1992, both by Daniel Yankelovich.