Aug 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Study: What Americans really think

Difference between public and private opinions
Data: Populace; Chart: Axios Visuals

"Self-silencing" — people saying what they think others want to hear rather than what they truly feel — is skewing our understanding of how Americans really feel about abortion, COVID-19 precautions, what children are taught in school and other hot-button issues, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The best predictor of private behavior is private opinion. People's actual views are far more likely than their stated views to drive consumer and social behavior — and voting.

  • "When we're misreading what we all think, it actually causes false polarization," said Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Populace, the Massachusetts-based firm that undertook the study. "It actually destroys social trust. And it tends to historically make social progress all but impossible."

The big picture: People are often more moderate than they'll readily admit when "being pulled toward a vocal fringe," whether left or right, Rose said.

  • But in some cases, he said, people reshape their privately held views to conform to what they think their group believes, even if that assessment is inaccurate.
  • The gap between real and stated views can have a generational impact, he said, because media amplifies perceptions that then cue young adults: "This generation's illusions tend to become next generation's private opinion."

How it works: Respondents were provided a mix of traditional polling questions and other questions using a list experiment method, or item-count technique, that provides them with a greater sense of anonymity. This process allows researchers to find the gap between what people say versus how they privately feel.

By the numbers: On abortion, the study found men are much less likely to privately agree with the idea that the choice to have an abortion should be left solely to a woman and her doctor (45%) than would say so publicly (60%).

  • Republicans, meanwhile, were less likely to privately say Roe v. Wade should be overturned (51%) than publicly (64%).

On COVID-19, only 44% of women privately feel wearing masks was effective at stopping COVID-19 spread, though 63% felt they should say they did.

An astonishing four times as many Democrats say CEOs should take a public stand on social issues (44%) than actually care (11%).

On education, Americans overall are privately more supportive of parents having more influence over curriculum (60%) than proclaim this publicly (52%).

  • That may help explain why GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's messaging on schools appealed to swing voters in Virginia last year, and why GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) championed "parents' rights" in signing prohibitions on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • One in three Democrats think parents should have more influence over public school curriculum — even though only one in four say so publicly. Among independents, 71% agree privately agree, though only 55% say so when asked in a more direct polling format; 85% of Republicans privately feel that way.

Yes, but: Americans are actually less concerned about teachers talking about gender identity or how much public schools focus on racism than they say publicly.

  • Only about half of Americans actually think it is inappropriate for schools to discuss gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade, compared to the 63% who say so publicly.
  • This misconception is particularly stark among independents. Just 42% privately have an issue with discussions about gender identity in K-3rd, despite 67% saying they take an issue with it publicly.
  • Even though 63% of Republicans privately said they believed racism was too much of a focus in public schools — far more than Democrats or independents— the number is a lot lower than the 80% who felt compelled to say so publicly.

The intrigue: The study found the biggest disparities among Hispanic respondents and political independents. On 14 out of 25 topics, these groups had double-digit gaps between what they say and believe.

Methodology: The survey was conducted for Populace by YouGov between May 23-June 8, 2022 among 3,334 respondents. The respondents were provided a mix of traditional polling questions and other questions using a list experiment method, which guarantees privacy.

  • These kind of results do not have the same MOE measurements as traditional public opinion polling
  • In the list experiment survey, respondents are never asked to directly share their opinion. Instead, they read a list of statements and choose the number with which they agree.
  • By comparing a group of people who see a list that includes the sensitive statement to a group who sees a list without it, inferences can be made about the prevalence of that private opinion in the population.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the survey was conducted May 23-June 8, 2022, not June 28.

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