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Toward Wiser Public Judgment, Part I – Concepts

This week Morning Feature explores Toward Wiser Public Judgment, a series of essays edited by Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman. Today we examine the concept of public judgment, whether and how we form stable, ethical, and responsible opinions on public issues. Tomorrow we’ll see actual applications in local and state issues. Saturday we’ll consider next steps in applying these tools at a national level.

The problem

Toward Wiser Public Judgment expands on Yankelovich’s 1991 book Coming to Public Judgment, and his conclusions that “American public opinion on most issues of the day did not meet the high standards of sound judgment necessary to make our democracy flourish as it should” and “Democracy cannot work if it’s just raw opinion.” While polls can measure whether we have opinions and what our opinions are – at least at that moment – pollsters rarely even attempt to measure the quality of our opinions. Have we worked through an issue to form a meaningful judgment? Or did a poll capture a snapshot as we drift around in search of a simple and painless answer to a complex and vexing problem?

Yankelovich argues that, on most important public issues, polls are usually snapshots of a public who have not yet formed a sound judgment. He does not blame that on public ignorance, prejudice, or ideological polarization. Instead, he writes:

Our research with the public suggested that the institutions of our society charged with shaping public opinion operate under a set of false assumptions about the forces that mold public opinion and how public opinion evolves over time. As a result, these institutions do a poor job of preparing Americans to cope with the problems that threaten to overwhelm us. […]

These misunderstandings of American public opinion on the part of leaders caused the quality of public judgment to suffer two decades ago, when [Coming to Public Judgment] was published. The events of recent years have made the problem even more severe and urgent. Elites have grown even more ideologically driven and polarized, and they transmit their divisive attitudes to the larger public.

Toward a more accurate picture of public opinion

Public opinion is often poorly-formed, Yankelovich argues, because our opinion-shaping institutions use a flawed model for how we make decisions. The prevailing model is a pyramid with experts and leaders at the top, who inform the 5-10% of us who are the “attentive public,” who in turn transmit that information to the general public. Yankelovich identifies three flaws in that model:

  • It assumes information is the main driver of sound judgment – Give people information and they will make sound judgments. If people do not make sound judgments, they lack information. This model grossly exaggerates the role of information in making sound judgments, and underestimates the importance of values and emotions.
  • It assumes that expert analysis and debates between experts are sound ways to shape public opinion – Leaders and experts make speeches, talk with reporters, write op-ed pieces, and appear on talk shows to debate issues. Unable to evaluate the experts’ arguments and wary of being misled, we may tune out, wondering how we’re supposed to decide if the experts can’t agree among themselves.
  • It assumes the media and experts are the main shapers of public opinion because they are the key sources of factual information – While media coverage is often essential to raise awareness and a sense of urgency, the rest of the learning curve is a social process. We form our opinions in emotion-laden, value-driven conversations with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

Yankelovich suggests a three-stage learning curve in forming sound public judgments:

  1. Consciousness raising – This is where we become aware of an issue and begin to take it seriously. This stage is largely media-driven. This process may be very slow, but news events can also push us into awareness and urgency very quickly.
  2. Working through – This is where we confront the need for change, consider the pros and cons of proposed actions, and wrestle with tradeoffs in search of a solution that is consistent with our core values. Emotions play a more prominent role than information or objective analysis, and we often fall back on denial or wishful thinking. This stage is full of backsliding, procrastination, and avoidance.
  3. Resolution – Having completed the learning curve, we choose a course of action and are prepared to accept its likely consequences. This usually involves first intellectual assent and then full commitment of both heart and mind. Our opinion becomes more stable, less likely to change when a poll question is worded differently or asked a few weeks or months later. Most important, we fully grasp and accept the consequences of our positions.

Forces working against sound public judgment

Yankelovich identifies two key forces working against the formation of sound public judgment:

  • Proliferation of time-lag problems – While sound public judgment can and does emerge through unstructured dialogue, that process can take years, decades, or even centuries. In the meantime, lacking a policy response backed by sound public judgment, the problems may get worse and the solutions even more painful. Yankelovich cites several such issues, including our national debt, climate change, our relationship with the Muslim world, and the rising costs of health care and higher education.
  • Intensity of conviction as a substitute for sound judgment – Increasingly fragmented into like-minded groups and media audiences, we become more likely to dismiss the costs, tradeoffs, and consequences of our positions, and cling more passionately to decisions we have not fully considered. The media, our leaders, and other interest groups may highlight and encourage these conflicts, further dividing us into factions competing to win rather than citizens working through an issue to form sound judgments.

Left unchecked, these forces threaten the very idea of representative government. If fragmentation and partisan warfare leave citizens unable to form sound judgments before our problems become too severe for any response to matter, we face two bleak choices. We can declare representative government a failed idea and be ruled by autocrats and/or technocrats. Or we can collapse under the weight of our unsolved problems … and potentially take other nations or even our species down with us.

Forces working for sound public judgment

Fortunately, Yankelovich also sees several emerging forces that can improve our ability to form sound public judgments. These include improved understanding of how our brains work, and the indispensable role of emotion in sound judgment. Neural imaging studies have shown that we cannot make sound decisions unless our emotions are constructively engaged. Mere facts and analysis are not enough. We must wrestle with the emotional implications of costs, tradeoffs, and consequences in order to reach ethical, responsible decisions.

The media and other institutions enable consciousness raising, Stage 1 of the public judgment process. Our political structures and other institutions can help us to translate sound public judgment into public policy, Stage 3 of that process. What we have lacked, and Yankelovich now sees emerging, are institutions that help us with Stage 2: working through difficult problems.

These usually take the form of community conversations or deliberative democracy. When done well, they bring a large cross-section of stakeholders – elected officials, civic leaders, and citizens – together to review the essential facts of a problem and then discuss alternative solutions. They aim not to force a consensus, but to ensure that each of the participants has the opportunity to listen, speak, and work through the costs, tradeoffs, and likely consequences of each solution. While the participants may not emerge with an consensus solution, a well-run community conversation will leave them with a better understanding of the issues, a better appreciation of their own and others’ points of view, and a greater trust that they can work together to find practical – albeit often difficult – solutions that reflect shared core values.

Tomorrow we’ll three such organizations and examples of their work with real-world problems.


Happy Thursday!