Although many early democratic theorists contemplated the nature of public opinion, many of the earliest discoveries about public opinion in the social sciences came from the study of psychology. Psychologists and sociologists alike attempt to account for the variations in people's opinions. Why do some people favor prayer in schools while others do not? Why are some people convinced O. J. Simpson is guilty while others are just as convinced that he is innocent? How do people decide which candidate to vote for? How do our internalized thoughts become our public opinion? Psychologists consider how our individual mental states, such as our moods, our attention span, or our thinking ability, affect the opinions we express. Sociologists, whose work we will explore in the next chapter, explore how social factors like group membership and social norms affect the expression of public opinion.
We have to approach the study of public opinion from many different directions because public opinion expression is made up of so many different psychological factors and social experiences. The formation of public opinion can be seen as a merging of individual beliefs, values, and attitudes in a situational context. Ideally, a public opinion scholar should be familiar with ideas and techniques from several fields—psychology, sociology, political science, and communication. Here, we will introduce you to some of the most important contributions from the study of psychology.
Psychologists offer us insight into some of the most basic building blocks of public opinion. The concepts developed in this field help us to understand how elements of our psychological makeup can be altered by new information and yet affect the processing of new information. This research also suggests that psychological factors affect our behavior, although the links between what we think and what we do are often weak. Although this sort of research would seem to have a great deal of practical applicability, especially in designing persuasive messages (and resisting them!), public opinion