Daniel Yankelovich

Public Opinion in America

VTR Date: June 8, 1975

Daniel Yankelovich discusses the difficulty of knowing what people are thinking.


GUEST: Daniel Yankelovich
VTR: 06/08/1975

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is Daniel Yankelovich, one of the country’s foremost diviners of public attitudes and public opinion. I’d like to begin our program quite directly, by asking him whether it’s legitimate for us or for anyone, politician, pollster, or what have you, ever to proclaim that the American people believe, we Americans think, America demands and so forth…do you think it’s fair for anyone to take that position, Mr. Yankelovich, that he knows what we as a people think?

YANKELOVICH: No, I think it’s very difficult – I think it’s not too difficult to learn what people say, but that’s not always the same as knowing what they really think.

HEFFNER: You think that’s true in political campaigns concerning issues, candidates, and so on?

YANKELOVICH: There’s usually quite a difference between candidates and issues. People do, in the course of a campaign eventually, make up their mind, choosing between “Candidate A” and “Candidate B”. The choice is very straightforward, very clear cut. Usually on issues it isn’t that clear cut. It’s much more difficult.

HEFFNER: Then why do we have headlines that proclaim “This poll or that poll says that Americans feel this way about Isolationism vs. Intervention”, or about a whole slew of issues?

YANKELOVICH: Well I think the, you know, most of us tend to assume that what people say is what they believe and that’s sometimes the case. It’s often the case. But it isn’t always the case. And that’s the shorthand way for the copy writer to claim that that’s what people really think.

HEFFNER: When you say most of us assume that, do you mean most of the public opinion researchers or most of the politicians or most of the headline writers?

YANKELOVICH: Well, you know, everyone has their own method for ascertaining public opinion. The people in political life do so by their mail, by looking at the polls, by having their antennae out and sensing what people think. Sometimes they’re very good at it. That’s an interpretation. The pollsters use other methods, the cross-section sampling, and I think that they’re very good at measuring what people say. But as I said, that’s not always what people think and believe.

HEFFNER: Why don’t you elaborate upon that, the difference between what we say and what we believe.

YANKELOVICH: Well, the…I think that there’s a number of examples of the difference between what people say and what they believe. I’m trying to think of some of the best examples that I can use for you. I remember a study that we did amongst students, a series of studies from the late 60s to the early 70s. And we found that many young people were saying that hard work…as I recall in our first study in 1967, oh about 8 out of 10 young people, 79% said that they believed that hard work always pays off. Now, in our last study, a few years ago, that had eroded to 46%. That’s quite a drop-off. And I realized that many people reading those results were interpreting them as an erosion of the work ethic, as that believing that young people were no longer willing to work as hard. Well, it was clear from many of their questions that that really wasn’t what the young people meant. They were willing to work as hard, but the nature of the pay-off had changed. What at one time was an automatic pay-off for hard work, money, success, simply was not as meaningful, and that there were other rewards that were meaningful to them, but unless you understood that it was very easy to misinterpret the meaning of the question. And it’s that kind of finding…During the Vietnam War, all of the questions that were asked about the support that the people gave to the President in his conduct during the war…It was clear from reading the fine print, the detailed findings, that people had reservations and hesitancies and anxieties a long time before it came through to the critical question of “do you or don’t you have confidence in the President’s conduct of the war”? When people say that they have confidence, it means a couple of things. One of the things it means is that automatic support that people give the President of the United States in matters of foreign policy – and through several years before the polls finally turned against Lyndon Johnson, there were deep reservations and anxieties that people had about the war, that they were willing to let him pursue it his way. Not because they favored the war, but simply because they had an automatic feeling that the President had sources of information available to him that they don’t have, and that they simply gave him their endorsement automatically without really supporting his stand on the war.

HEFFNER: When you use the phrase “without reading the fine print behind the returns” are you talking about the political leader who “won’t” or “doesn’t”, or are you talking about the public opinion researcher who will present a finer, better interpretation of the gross figures that are then quoted?

YANKELOVICH: You know it’s both, and it’s also the people that…the media will report the findings. The custom is that to report poll findings, by reporting one single finding and making a headline out of it. But it’s very difficult to report and display the way that people feel about a complex issue. That’s not a single question.

HEFFNER: So that when a president says or a governor says or any political leader, or someone in opposition, “we the people believe”, I gather they’re not as well informed as sometimes we think they are.

YANKELOVICH: Again, it probably comes back to the nature of the question. Now, in a campaign, in a political campaign, it’s possible to answer how you stand, whether you favor one candidate or another in answer to a single question. So when that’s reported in that form it’s perfectly valid. But when you’re talking about whether or not the country is isolationist now or the extent to which they would trade off economic security to protect the environment or the other way around – those kinds of global issues that are so complex and so difficult – there’s no way that you can answer them through a single question. It’s just like if I were to ask you to sum up the meaning of your life, to tell me if you were very happy, somewhat happy, only moderately happy, or not happy at all. It would not be adequate, summing up how you feel about something as complex as your life and that’s not a very adequate way of portraying how people feel about very complex issues, to which they may not have given any thought at all.

HEFFNER: Well, a number of questions occur to me stemming from what you just said. One, is it possible, with a kind of in-depth interview with tons of questions which may lead to ancillary issues, to divine what it is we think about complex issues? Isolationism, whether I’m happy with my life or whatever it may be?

YANKELOVICH: Well, I think so. I think that the first thing you can ascertain if you ask people enough questions, is whether they have a view or not, how much they thought about it, the extent to which they thought it through. There are many issues in which people will give you an answer, but they haven’t thought through the issue. And they’ll tell you that they haven’t thought it through, and that’s an important piece of information to have. There are times that you have to ask additional questions to get at what they mean. I remember very vividly, during the 1970 campaign, where if you recall, law and order was a big issue. Well, many people interpreted the polls as meaning that “law and order” was a code word for being anti-Black. That was a popular interpretation of meaning at that time. But it was very clear from additional surveys and studies if you asked additional questions that that wasn’t what people were concerned about at all. They were concerned about law and order in the most literal sense. And it included liberals, it included Blacks, it included a huge number of people who said that they were for law and order and were against Vice President Agnew, who at that time was the symbol of law and order. So I think you do get a much better and much clearer picture about what people believe about complex issues if you don’t confine a poll to a single question or the reporting of it to a single question.

HEFFNER: So this was, I believe, the campaign of ’72 then that you were referring to.

YANKELOVICH: I was referring to the Senatorial and Gubernatorial campaign here in New York State in ’70.

HEFFNER: Right. Well, if that’s the case, let me ask you what the responsibility is of the public opinion researcher to make certain that his depth analysis of the figures is what’s published, is what’s chosen, is what’s headlined, as opposed to his clients’ choice of a conclusion of a supposed finding.

YANKELOVICH: Well, I think that the public opinion profession has accepted, for historical reasons, and for practical, economic reasons, the tendency to highlight and headline a particular finding. And also, as I mentioned earlier, because of the influence of the pre-election polling, such a single finding, it does sum up very adequately. And I don’t think that we have pushed hard enough, that people in the newspapers and the magazines and on television, have pushed hard enough to get the full story across. Of course, the attempt of the media necessarily is always to attempt to try to simplify. And our attempt necessarily is always to try to tell the full story. But I think as polls begin, as polls are taken seriously, and rightfully so, and when decisions in this country and other countries are based on some appraisal of opinion reflecting the polls, I think it’s mandatory that the full complexity of an issue be shown.

HEFFNER: Do you think that decisions are taken in this country and elsewhere based upon the polls, political decisions, important decisions?

YANKELOVICH: I do. And just in the past few months, I think the reason I’m thinking about his particular issue now, is I’ve learned of several governments who have – foreign governments – who have made policy decisions based on American public opinion polls. You know, American public opinion polls abroad are sort of like apple pie and hot dogs. They’re indigenously American. And if you’re thousands of miles away, and the polls are scientific, they seem to be a pretty good basis for making judgments. So, consequently, under those circumstances, it’s particularly important that they say it. That they interpret the meaning of the findings and not simply report one or two answers to questions where the questions may or may not be that good.

HEFFNER: Traditionally in this country when we found a group or an activity that is of significance, as you say, in public opinion polls, of some significance, there’s a drive toward responsibility toward accountability, toward licensing. And I know that that may seem to be a peculiar question, but I wonder if there is any thought now about given the power of the researchers, the necessity to license them.

YANKELOVICH: Well, you know, there is in this field an association with a Standards Committee, and Ethics Committee, the American Association of Public Opinion Research. They do a really good job. They do police the field. The issue is not one…what they can do is determine questions of bias and technical accuracy. And I believe that that fight has been won to some degree. In other words, you’ll find in the field today very little bias in questions. And where there are questions of bias, they are picked up and questioned very quickly by the profession’s own watchdog committee because they recognize that public responsibility. On issues of accuracy…I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the polls are almost never inaccurate in reporting what people say. The issue is what meaning you read into what they say.

HEFFNER: And their accuracy on that level?

YANKELOVICH: Well, if they don’t, if they don’t make any pretense at being accurate on that level then it’s a very nice question, isn’t it? If you were to demand of the profession that they interpret the meaning of their results somebody could argue the other side. Somebody could say “Look, why should we depend on these pollsters to interpret the meaning of the results? Let them just give us the facts, and we’ll do the interpretation”. That’s a defensive position.

HEFFNER: How defensive is it in terms of our growing demand for information that’s accumulated, world data without evaluation and interpretation? Or let’s say just for that evaluation. We’ve been learning that that’s a very dangerous thing on some levels of government.

YANKELOVICH: Well, I’ve tried to make my own personal position clear. I was just trying to say the other side for the sake of honesty. My own position is that the interpretation is inseparable from the findings. And to present one or another fact, and leave that to the person who doesn’t know the full background of the context – the headline writer who quickly picks it off and writes a headline – to convey that flatly as the whole picture of American public opinion is wrong. It is misleading. It is misleading most of the time. So I think that it should be recognized that interpretation is valid. That interpretation is necessary, that new techniques are necessary to bring up the full meaning of what people really do mean on a complex issue. But I don’t think the correct approach to it is a standards or ethical watchdog police approach. The police approach is for guaranteeing honesty and accuracy. That’s not the issue. The issue isn’t honesty and accuracy. It’s being inadvertently misleading in telling the facts, where the facts are misleading.

HEFFNER: Without going further.

YANKELOVICH: Without going further and saying what people really mean.

HEFFNER: So it’s not just “tell me the facts, ma’am”, but it’s “tell me ALL the facts”.

YANKELOVICH: “Tell me all the facts”, yes. “Tell me all the facts. Tell me what the facts mean”. An example that stays in my mind all the time and it’s from long, long ago…but I can’t help bring it up because it illustrates the point so well…One of the first studies of this type ever done was done in pre-Hitler Germany, was done by the Frankfurt Social Research Institute among the German Social Democratic trade unionists. And the question that they asked was to what extent these Social Democrats would support Adolph Hitler if he came to power. And the answer was that they would reject him. That they would stay with their Social Democratic ideals and that they would have nothing to do with Hitler. Well, if these groups had accepted that finding at face value they would have ended up in the gas chamber rather than coming to this country freely. They did ask other question. And the other questions showed that there was an underlying hunger for the kind of authority that Hitler represented and that this response…the other response was superficial and that you had to see the whole picture. You had to see how people felt they ought to respond, with what they really felt, and make a judgment as to what was more important and what was more real. In that case, their judgment saved their lives. But that problem has been in this field from that time on.

HEFFNER: I wonder if there aren’t other judgments that may save or cost lives such as the judgment of American attitudes toward continued intervention in the world outside, on the scale of the last two decades, three decades, as opposed to what’s being called isolationism.

YANKELOVICH: I think that you couldn’t have picked a better example. You find people today preoccupied with the economy. It’s as if you were having some economic difficulty and that was in the front of your mind. You were struggling with it and while you were preoccupied with it you really didn’t want to be bothered with other issues. It doesn’t mean you weren’t concerned about those other issues. The question would be whether that preoccupation meant real isolationism or not. Again, in terms of the themes we’re discussing, it’s very difficult to make a judgment on something as complex as that through any single question.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you, and I know you may dismiss this question as unfair…on this issue of our attitudes, our attitudes…


HEFFNER: …In terms of the social indicators that you have been studying, in terms of what you know generally of what we feel about many, many different things, do you feel that there is a movement away from involvement, if there ever was a thorough involvement on the part of most people in world affairs?

YANKELOVICH: I think that to the extent that people are preoccupied with the economy, to the extent that they are scarred by Vietnam, that there has been somewhat of a pulling back at the moment. I would not interpret that pulling back as adding up to isolationism as it was defined in former years. I would interpret that as meaning the need to rethink certain of our commitments, to rethink the ethicacy of using force, to rethinking the kind of commitment that led to Vietnam. People want that kind of reappraisal. When they come out the other end, it doesn’t mean that they want to withdraw into Fortress America and let the rest of the world go its own way. We see the country at a time with rethinking, reappraisal, preoccupation with other kinds of issues, resulting in this slight momentary pull-back. But it doesn’t mean a trend in that direction. It doesn’t mean, in my view, a lasting isolationism. The facts are interpretation.

HEFFNER: Those who felt that supposed 19th and 20th century Jacksonian involvement in the will of the people, the voice of the people being the voice of God, or the will of the people being the voice of God, has given way again in terms of the complexities of contemporary society to the rule by the best and the brightest. Do you think that there is any validity to the notion that this is – it must be, given the technical aspects of our society?

YANKELOVICH: I think the reverse is happening, that if there is any way…there are many ways of summing up the complexity of social changes that have taken place in the last decade…one of the ways of summing it up has been an enormous increase in the desire for participation. There is a desire of people to participate in decisions in the workplace that affect their jobs, the desire for people to get involved in the community, to participate in decisions that affect their lives. People are concerned with the feeling of powerlessness and impotence that they have, and they want that mode of participation. And I think that, particularly with our experience with the imperial presidency in the Nixon Administration, that Watergate has reinforced that feeling. And it has effectively strengthened Congress at the expense of the presidency, where Congress is the more responsive group.

HEFFNER: Of course, that remains to be seen. Someday we ought to discuss that attitude that you may describe as being the death rattle of that former Jacksonian democracy, but we have just a few minutes left. Let me ask you this question: You’ve talked about the scientific basis for opinion research. I’m intrigued by the fact that most people, when they are critical of public opinion research, are critical on the grounds not of the capacity of the pollster, or the politician that reports it, or the media that report it to interpret the results, but they’re critical of sampling.


HEFFNER: 2,600 people? It’s impossible to know what a country thinks…


HEFFNER: What are your comments on that?

YANKELOVICH: Well, that’s one of the paradoxes of the field, that if you…being very simple about it…you divide polling into the sampling operation, selecting a cross-section of people as one part of it and the other part being the questions you ask them, the sampling part is the really scientific part, the only scientific part. And that’s been proven over and over again, that what is scientific as almost anything in our times is the process of probability sampling, selecting a cross-section of the public if you do it in the correct way. What is not at all scientific, and that is so counter to common sense but it’s true, the least scientific part are the questions that I ask you and the interpretation of those answers that you give me. So the part that people feel is most unscientific is the hard rock and the part that they take for granted is really the art form. It is a paradox.

HEFFNER: Do you find any shift in opinion on opinion polls? Do you find any stiffening resistance against the supposed facts that arise from public opinion polls? Or is there a greater willingness to resort to polling to find out what we think?

YANKELOVICH: Well, you know, polling is a very good record. The one or two elections where the polls were off many years ago…techniques have been refined. We’re living through a very confusing period…the accuracy of sampling, the fact that I think there are some very good people in the field has tended to win greater acceptance for polling and surveys, particularly in this period of vast social change. However mindful I might be of its shortcomings, the fact is that it is a superior way of gauging what people say and think than making some wild stab at it, taking your feelings when all you know is your circle of friends who think as you do. I think that, with the greater prestige of polls, that it is incumbent on us to take the next step, which is to improve our capabilities even further, and to improve them in that area…interpretation of gaining a more accurate picture of the full complexity of people’s thoughts rather than some superficial notion of what they say about some issue that they may not have given a great deal of thought to.

HEFFNER: In the 30 or 40 seconds left do you find that more and more public figures are making use of public opinion research?

YANKELOVICH: Yes, indeed, in all walks of life. Not only in politics, but in business and public affairs, social research on public needs and values is growing and will probably grow in the future.

HEFFNER: Are they doing so successfully?

YANKELOVICH: Within the limitations that we’ve talked about, yes.

HEFFNER: Thanks very much, Mr. Yankelovich, for joining me today. I appreciate your discussions so frankly of the questions that relate in our minds, and the minds of our viewers, I’m sure to the matter of public opinion research.

And thanks, too, to you in our audience. I do hope that you’ll join me again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as a very good old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner. We would like to know your opinion on today’s subject. Write to THE OPEN MIND in care of this station.