October 29, 2004 - From the October, 2004 issue

Yankelovich Offers Perspectives On 14 Years Of Practice

As we rapidly approach the November 2 election, polling sources give us accounts of where several races, national and local, stand. Daniel Yankelovich, founder of Viewpoint Learning and Public Agenda, has written extensively on the subject of polling and public opinion. In Coming To Public Judgment (2001), Yankelovich offered a new theory on enhancing the quality of public opinion. This month, MIR is pleased to excerpt part of Yankelovich's remarks on public opinion and judgment given at USC this month.

Dan Yankelovich

While I was writing Coming to Public Judgment 14 years ago, a phrase that Alfred North Whitehead used in his book, Science and the Modern World kept on flashing through my mind. He described scientists having to do their work in the teeth of the stubborn, irreducible facts they were struggling with. I think that's one of the advantages of being a practitioner; you're constantly up against stubborn, irreducible facts and you somehow have to find some way of reconciling what you're doing with them. At that time, I had been working in this field for almost 40 years, so that a lot of stubborn irreducible facts had piled up and a lot changes seemed to me needed to be made in conventional wisdom. So in the preface of the book I mentioned five conclusions that had been forced on me, and caused me to change my thinking. I'd like to summarize those briefly, since I think that they are still relevant.

The first one is that the role of information in forming people's judgments is coarsely exaggerated. The emphasis on information continues unabated today, primarily because that's the meat and potatoes work of the media. They're in the information business, and so they help to perpetuate the concept that you start with people's top of the mind views, and you add information and out pops solid judgment. Of course, as you wrestle with that you realize it's about as far from the case as can be. And what is amazing to me is the persistence of that view.

In this process absorbing some information has a role, but the role it has is so secondary that it is simply extraordinary to declare that the structure of this field, particularly on the practice side, should be built around that notion of information leading to judgment. It's very tough work for people to do that, and it does cut across several categories. It's cognitive work, it's certainly emotional work; it has a cultural aspect, a sociological aspect, and a political aspect. So, to understand it you really have to bring that kind interdisciplinary framework to bear.

A second change that was troubling me a great deal was that this field focused more on how to measure and manipulate public opinion than on how to improve it. In a democracy, that just seemed to me to be extraordinary. It's very tricky. I was reminded of how tricky it is by a piece in the New Yorker by Louis Menand.

In that article, Menand discusses Converse's concept of quality as having to do with theories that are internally consistent. Converse describes his ideal citizen as someone who has an ideologically coherent set of beliefs, and who almost deduces his positions from those beliefs. To me, that's the perfect definition of the neo-con. Yet as a country, we're going through a kind of disaster by the deductions of the neo-cons - very bright people who seem to be incapable of perceiving reality because they have these internally consistent, internally coherent ideological commitments.

What I found was that public opinion - or what I call raw opinion, the sort of top of the head, mindless view of people giving ten minutes to a subject - is characterized by structural flaws. One is unstable preferences, or what the editor of Time magazine called "mushiness." Another characteristic of raw opinion is that it includes gross internal contradictions, which are signs that people haven't really come to grips with the issue. People holding raw opinion are not totally aware of the consequences of their own point of view. So, it just seemed to me while I was examining this journey that people make going from raw opinion to public judgment, that what they do is they improve, they fix, these flaws.

The third place where I found myself out of step with my practitioner colleagues is that I find most public opinion polls very misleading. I think the main source of their being misleading has to do with the fact that when you look at the number you cannot distinguish between a number that represents judgment, where people hold firm, solid views, and a number that is as mushy and volatile as can be. So if you see two 70 percents, one of them means 70 percent, or maybe between 67 and 73 with sample error, and the other may mean a totally different number.

At the time of the Clinton health care plan, I analyzed some 17 different polls, that came to an average of 71 percent support for the Clinton health care plan. But as we pressed people about the firmness with which they held these views, as soon as they began to realize that there were costs, that there were consequences, that there were inconveniences related to quality, the number who were supporting the Clinton health care plan dropped from 71 percent to 34 percent. Now that's not sampling error - that's the difference between success and failure. And the inability of the polling profession to give some signal to the user of when 70 percent means 70 percent and when it means 30 percent is a really terrible flaw.

The fourth change in view that I arrived at was that I came to have enormous respect for public judgment - when people did arrive at it. Over the years, I gained increasing respect for the quality of public judgment, and concluded that it represents a valid form of knowledge or wisdom. Hannah Arendt labeled this type of epistemological struggle "representative thinking." She described the process, which she felt was essential to democracy, of people looking at issues from a variety of points of view and feeling that from that interaction of the variety of points of view came a distillation of understanding that you couldn't get in any other way. It seems to me that's what public judgment represents – a kind of collectivism that is a form of knowledge, insights, and genuine understanding.

Finally, I came to feel the inadequacy of most theories of public opinion to acknowledge the evolution of opinion. It's not an instantaneous factor where you get information and you change your point of view. A theory has to account for the fact that issues sometimes get stuck on the journey, and stuck for years or decades and don't move. Sometimes you can get judgments in a matter of weeks, and sometimes, as in issues like slavery and women's rights, they may take centuries. Any theory of public opinion must deal with these realities.


So those were some of the kinds of issues that I found myself struggling with after being in field for a number of years. On some aspects of coming to public judgment, I don't see any change at all in the last 14 years. I think, for example, the need for people to see things from a variety of points of view has been diminished by the proliferation of the media, so that people never have to face cognitive dissonance. They can hear themselves talking on talk radio – they can just seek out reconfirmation of their own points of view and get locked into that, which would result in a more dogmatic, more opinionated, and less real judgment.

But I think there's been real progress in one dimension: the deliberative democracy movement. This emphasis on deliberation is very much part of what I have been talking about, of people going from raw opinion to them being engaged in a meaningful way. I have some differences with the deliberative movement – it's focus on information, for example. But I think the thing that bothers me most is probably how deliberation implies rationality, which is the last thing that people deal with in these instances.

What I also want to say is that the similarities are more important to emphasize than the differences. We are all working at the very important task of emphasizing that you can't run a democracy based on raw opinion if the public is going to be so isolated from decision making. And if, on the other hand, if you can do something with the institutions as well as with public opinion so that they begin to come together and you have people motivated to do this hard work, and institutions are responsive to this, then you begin to see some real headway.

On a personal level I've come to appreciate another major advance beyond Coming to Public Judgment that I've made in my own research and my own work, and that has been to appreciate the role of dialogue and what you have to do with the tool of dialogue to make it work. Dialogue is not just agreeable conversation. It's a rule-based, highly disciplined form of discourse. And there are a few indispensable rules of real dialogue. The first is being able to park status outside the door so that you have a conversation among people, at least on that occasion, that is not status driven and has equality. The second is to reserve judgment and make no decisions during the course of the dialogue. It's a very difficult thing for people to do, but they can do it if you have the right kind of facilitator. Third, the emphasis on dialogue should always on accentuating common ground rather than on searching for differences, so that the mode of dialogue is almost totally at variance with the present trend in the culture, which is all adversarial. Maybe 50 percent of our problems can be solved through adversarial means. But the other 50 percent can't.

And I think the most important aspect of dialogue is that it digs beneath the conversation to bring assumptions to the surface. I think of it as sort of an exercise in the archaeology of assumptions. The reason it's so important to bring out assumptions is that dialogue works best with people who come to the dialogue with different frameworks – the scientist and the citizen, the environmentalist and developer. Ordinary conversation is designed to communicate with people who have a common framework. Ordinary conversation doesn't work when you have people with different frameworks – then they pass each other like ships in the night.

And the way to get a mutual understanding between people who hold different frameworks is to have each side bring to the surface the key underlying assumptions that define them with respect to the particular issue they're talking about. And so, if you follow those rules then you have a mode of discourse that does all the things you want to have done in public judgment. People are working to align their values with their views and the issues. They are looking at things for multiple ways of framing them. They are confronting the often painful trade-offs that are involved. They're also absorbing information, which is certainly part of the process. And in the right kind of dialogue they're taking the time needed to go through at least some of the stages. After I wrote the book Magic of Dialogue a few years ago, and moved from New York to Southern California, I was asked many times to do more in carrying out dialogue. And I've concluded that it's best to think of dialogue as a general platform; that if you're trying to come to grips with specific issues you need to fix that platform up in a particular way.

In the end, you have to compress the time that it would ordinarily take to go through a dialogue which might be weeks and months. You have to do a lot of homework with the people who are going to be in the dialogue. People work best when they can focus on choices. And the choices have to be formulated in a way that each one puts its best foot forward, so that you have polity choices that represent different points of view, and the pros and cons are thus laid out. And you have to have a format to the dialogue where there's a specific provision to confront wishful thinking and so forth.

So, let me conclude with what I think is a general conclusion for the relevance of public transfer to public engagement. I think that the theory of cognitive public transfer, which is a theory of the evolution of public opinion is relevant as a research tool, so that you understand where people come out once they've had a chance to focus on issues in this intensive way. And so we are on our way toward having a viable theory of public engagement.



© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.