Public Opinion

By Carroll J. Glynn; Susan Herbst et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
Perception and Opinion
Formation

You have probably heard it before: It is not reality that matters but rather the perception of that reality. Nothing could be more true. A homeless man on the street corner may be perfectly harmless, but if you perceive him as a threat, that becomes the reality. You will cross the street to avoid passing him. As Perry Hinton 1 writes, we are more than "simply recorders of information ... we are processors of information." That is, we do not simply take in information through our eyes and ears; we make inferences and derive meaning from that information.

We make judgments about other people all the time, and we base these judgments on our perceptions. Think of the many times you rely on your perceptions. If a recent acquaintance walks past you without saying hello, you may perceive the action as coming either from rudeness or preoccupation. You may perceive a fellow student who expounds loudly and extensively in class as being either obnoxious or extremely intelligent. You may perceive that people are angry or sad, that they are dishonest or sincere.

And these perceptions can be very important. Perceptions of O. J. Simpson's character, as well as the character of the many Los Angeles police officers involved in that highly publicized case, influenced jury members and obviously affected the outcome of the trial. When you apply for a job, the employer's perception of you can provide you with a job opportunity or keep you in the ranks of the unemployed.

Our perceptions help us understand the world around us. We try to predict what others will do or say and rationalize others' motives in order to provide explanations for their behaviors. We constantly perceive our world, and we rationalize what is going on in that world based on our perceptions. In many ways, these perceptions provide the foundation for a public's opinion.

As Walter Lippmann describes, there is a world outside and there are the pictures in our heads. He argues:

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