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Zaller: The nature and origins of mass opinion

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Zaller. 1992. The nature and origins of mass opinion.

In Brief

Zaller argues that elite-driven communications do impact public opinion, but that it is mediated by political awareness which determines the consistency and salience of considerations. Zaller challenges the idea that voters only have one true preference; instead he presents a model where individuals have conflicting views on specific issues and the "winning" view at any given time is determined by what considerations are at the top of your head.

Zaller's general argument can be summed up with the "Receive-Accept-Sample" model: your stated opinions reflect considerations that you have received (heard or read about), accepted (if they are consistent with prior beliefs), and sampled from (based on what's salient at the time). This can be understood with a bucket analogy: Considerations go into your head as if your head were a bucket. When you express an opinion, you reach into the bucket for a sample of considerations; those near the top are more likely to be picked. You then take the average of these considerations, and that's your opinion (at the moment).

Research Question

How do people form political preferences?

Answer: Mass opinion is largely shaped by exposure (via the media) to elite discourse on issues. Zaller's independent variable is the information carried in and the intensity of elite discourse. His intervening variables are individual-level differences in attention to this discourse and individual-level differences in political values; these are the "receive" and "accept" parts of the model.

Place in the Literature

Zaller can be seen as a more nuanced version of Converse (1964) and Iyengar and Kinder (1987). See Zaller and Feldman (1992) for a more concise statement of essentially the same argument. But see also Zaller (1998, "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science"), in which Zaller argues that the argument in his 1992 book (the one summarized here) attributed too much influence to elites.


In General

Zaller begins by rejecting the view that individuals possess a "true attitude" or single opinion on an issue ("most of what gets measured as public opinion does not exist except in the presence of a pollster" page 265) and instead proposes a model of how individuals construct opinions in response to the particular stimuli that confront them. Zaller's model is constructed from four basic premises:

  1. Individuals differ substantially in their attention to politics and therefore their exposure to elite sources of political information.
  2. People react critically to political communication only to the extent that they are knowledgeable about political affairs.
  3. People rarely have fixed attitudes on specific issues; rather they construct preference statements on the fly as they confront each issue raised.
  4. In constructing these statements, people make the greatest use of ideas that are the most immediately salient to them. Usually these are the ideas that have recently been called to mind or thought about since it takes less time to retrieve these or related considerations from memory and bring them to the top of the head for use.

"Considerations": The 'Receive-Accept-Sample' (RAS) Model

For Zaller, the public forms "considerations" in response to elite discourse (political communications) in the mass media. Often, this discourse consists of multiple, frequently conflicting streams of persuasive messages. In general, the greater an individual's level of political awareness, the more likely she is to receive these messages. Also, the greater a person's level of awareness, the more likely she is to be able, under certain circumstances, to resist (or accept) information that is inconsistent with her basic values or partisanship. If internalized, political considerations become reasons for taking one side rather than the other on a political issue.

When asked their opinions in surveys, people will support or oppose a given policy depending on the mix of positive or negative considerations sampled from the top of the person's mind at the moment of answering a question. Zaller formalizes this in the following manner: 'Prob(Liberal response) = L/(L+C)', where L and C refer to the number of liberal and conservative considerations available in the person's mind. The balance between these considerations depends on society-level variables (such as the intensity and balance of elite discourse) as well as individual-level variables (such as person's political awareness and values).

RAS and Political Awareness

More aware persons will be exposed to more political communications (they 'receive' more), but will be more selective in deciding which communications to internalize as considerations (they 'accept' less). Thus politically aware citizens will tend to fill their minds with large numbers of considerations, and these considerations will tend to be relatively more consistent with one another and with the citizen's predispositions. Less aware citizens will internalize ('receive') fewer considerations and will be less consistent in rejecting ('accepting') them. As a result, more aware people will be more likely to be able to state opinions, and more likely to state opinions that are ideologically consistent with their predispositions.

RAS and Attitude Change: Campaigns and Persuasion

Attitude change (understood as the a change in people's long term response probabilities) results from a change in the mix of ideas to which people are exposed. Changes in the flow of political communication cause attitude change not by producing a sudden conversion experience but by producing gradual changes in the balance of considerations that are present in people's minds and available for answering survey questions.

As has already been indicated, the effects political campaigns (or any elite discourse) vary depending on the relative intensity of the opposing messages and individual's prior stores of partisan information. The least aware are most susceptible to influence in situations in which the information flow is very intense, as in presidential elections (because they 'receive' lots of information but 'accept' almost everything). Moderately aware persons are most susceptible in situations in which messages are moderately intense and partisan orientations activated as in contested House elections, presidential popularity and the later stages of Vietnam. The most aware people are most open to influence when there is little partisan or ideological basis for resistance to persuasion, as in the early stages of a primary campaign, or when there is little access to countervalent information, as in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

Final Comments

According to Zaller, the effects of values and awareness (knowledge) on political attitudes (opinions) are not automatic but depend on elite cues for motivation.

Zaller believes that only the most aware citizens will have a consistent ideology or belief system. According to Zaller, highly aware liberals and conservatives look to appropriate partisan elites to find out "what goes with what." Having acquired this information, they are able to become consistently liberal or consistently conservative across a range of issues. The less aware are less likely to acquire the attitude that is consistently appropriate to their partisan orientation, and hence less likely to develop "attitude constraint" across issues.

Empirical Test

To test his RAS model, Zaller relies primarily upon NES survey data. Specifically, he applies his theory to the dynamics of public opinion on a broad range of subjects, including domestic and foreign policy, trust in government, racial equality, the Vietnam War, and presidential approval.

Key Definitions

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Zaller, John (author)American PoliticsPublic OpinionMedia EffectsElectionsCampaign Advertisements

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