The Challenges Of Changing Public Opinion
When it comes to advocacy, public opinion matters. In the past, broadly-held views have influenced legislative outcomes, Supreme Court decisions, and corporate practices (e.g., caging hens). These structural changes then play a big role in shaping individual behavior, such as meat consumption.
So, if public opinion change is worth pursuing, the next question is whether and how advocates can influence it. In this meta-review of public opinion change research, the author reviews evidence for attitude shifts in a range of “moral circle expansion areas” and how this can be applied to the animal protection movement. For example, it includes research on same-sex marriage, racial desegregation, and more. The meta-analysis reveals mixed results: some approaches work, some don’t, and some even backfire. In nearly all cases, the impact of public opinion interventions are small and last just a few days or weeks.
While even the successful public opinion change interventions had small effects that faded fast, these strategies had seven shared characteristics that distinguished them from entirely ineffective advocacy methods:
- Craft Goldilocks messages: The most influential messages invite an opinion shift that’s neither too small nor too extreme relative to the recipient’s current beliefs. A message that comes across as too radical can backfire, turning the audience away. For example, frequent meat-eaters will likely be more influenced by an appeal to reduce meat consumption than by a pitch to go vegan. To harness this insight, advocates can use surveys and interviews to understand their audience’s views and tailor different messages to different groups.
- Pick low-bias topics: People are more likely to form a new opinion or change their opinion in areas where they have few existing biases. For example, public opinion change is easiest when people aren’t familiar with a topic or when a topic doesn’t impact them directly. Advocates can leverage this finding by focusing on lesser-known issues (e.g., a specific farming practice) and impersonal changes (e.g., policy reform rather than individual diet change). They can also pursue novice audiences who have little prior exposure to a topic. Just keep in mind that the more people learn about a topic, the more rigid their opinions become, so advocates should try to make good first impressions with their messages.
- Share more and more often: More detailed messages result in greater and longer-lasting change. Impact tends to fade fast (e.g., one study found that no attitude change remained just two weeks after watching a documentary about reducing meat consumption). So, it also helps to follow up rather than rely on the strength of a single message. Given this evidence, advocates’ messages will likely be more effective when they offer people the option to go deeper. This might look like opportunities to ask questions, join discussions, and view additional content. For motivated audiences, long-form interventions (e.g., books, documentaries) are likely to have better results than quick messages. For all audiences, multiple messages repeated over time will likely produce better results.
- Pick the right reps: The shorter the message, the more important it is to select the right representative to deliver it. In general, speakers who are perceived as more credible in terms of expertise and delivery are more persuasive. The greater the gap between the message and the audience’s current views, the higher speaker credibility must be. An interesting exception is that lower speaker credibility results in greater influence when the message supports the audience’s current beliefs. Other speaker factors that generally result in greater persuasion include: trustworthiness, perceived goodwill, attractiveness, likability, similarity between the speaker and audience, and formal authority. Animal advocates can increase their odds of success by highlighting their speakers’ credibility and increasing the diversity of their speakers.
- Craft a persuasive pitch: The report revealed several message features that result in greater persuasion. These include messages that:
- Reference evidence.
- Make recommendations for concrete next steps listeners can take.
- Use a narrative structure (rather than data alone), especially telling engaging stories and featuring relatable characters.
- Use vivid language such as metaphors, pictures, videos, audio, and memorable examples.
- Refute opposing views (rather than presenting a one-sided view).
- Invite autonomy by asking people to reflect on their own values and reminding them that they have the right to make up their own minds.
- Position your message as a widely-held belief.
- Make emotional appeals (rather than simply rational ones). For example, guilt, fear, and disgust can each be effective when used strategically and cautiously to avoid a backfiring effect.
- Find the frame: Even more so than getting the content of the message right, it’s important to get the frame of a message right. Framing involves how information is presented. For example, a ‘gain-frame’ such as “saving lives” tends to be more persuasive than a ‘loss-frame’ such as “preventing deaths.” Frames that align with an audience’s values tend to be more impactful. Finding the right frame can be especially powerful if this frame is picked up and continuously promoted by mass media, politicians, or other social influencers. Advocates should experiment with different frames to test which lens produces the best results.
- Pick your people: No matter how carefully sculpted the message, it might still fall flat for many audiences. If an advocate’s goal is to earn public support for their views faster, an efficient approach is to pick people who are most receptive. For example, research shows that the biggest opposers to factory farming in the U.S. tend to be:
- Younger people
- More liberal people
- Black people
- Hispanic/Latine people
- People from the Northeast
- Vegans and vegetarians
It’s a good idea to test out a message with different demographics to determine where there is the greatest degree of traction.
Aside from investigating direct persuasion attempts, the report also examined other factors that contribute to public opinion change. For example:
- Protests: Protests have been known to catalyze hearings and introduce legislation, which in turn exert greater influence on public opinion. Protests can also have ripple effects (e.g., winning sympathy from a small group of white Southern Americans created a divide in support for Jim Crow laws). However, protests that don’t have clear goals or that are perceived as violent can backfire, drawing opposition rather than support. If planning a protest, advocates should make specific requests and strive to gain sympathetic news coverage.
- Media coverage: The media’s focus appears to change public focus, though to a small degree and for short periods of time. Research shows that media coverage also influences political agendas, public knowledge, public perception of reality, views on how to evaluate an issue or candidate, and what is top of mind. So, influencing media coverage is a promising approach to change people’s minds and spur action. As with all persuasive messages, mass media messages have the most influence when people have little past exposure to the information, have weakly-held opinions, and receive the same message repeatedly. Media coverage also tends to be most persuasive when a message is one-sided and when it is positioned as a movement (rather than a single event or a small group’s perspective). To get the most out of media coverage, advocates should engineer a persuasive message, position it as a movement, and time the message well — with one study suggesting that optimal timing is four to eight weeks before a specific action is required.
- Social influencers: Most social influencers are inconsistent in their ability to shape public opinion. Research shows that politicians’ perspectives can sometimes be influential but only when their view is thought to represent a consensus. Celebrities can also influence public opinion, but only when there is a ‘match up’ between their reputation and the issue they are promoting. If leveraging influencers, advocates should seek to find representatives whose reputation appears to match the issue. For best results, prioritize crafting a narrow message for the influencer to share and repeat and discourage broad commentary on the topic since a comment that is viewed as negative or inauthentic can easily backfire.
- Public policy: While the goal of shifting public opinion is often to shift public policy, research shows that the degree of impact is much stronger the other way around. For example, when a city passes a smoking ban, an increase in public support for smoke-free restaurants follows. Of course, public policy change also has the advantage of shaping behavior regardless of people’s beliefs. These findings reveal promising strategies for advocates who want to make larger and more lasting changes than public opinion shifts alone can produce. Advocates should attempt to implement policy change during spikes in social support for the cause or attempt to catalyze public opinion shifts coupled with policy reform campaigns.
Trying to change public opinion tends to be an uphill battle. Any changes that happen are generally small and fade fast. This is disappointing (albeit not surprising) news. But the good news is that a ‘one-two punch’ strategy can result in rapid and lasting impact. By promoting a persuasive message with the right frame to the right audience, it’s possible to catalyze a short spike in public support or opposition. When well-timed, this spike can encourage public policy reform, which then serves as a reinforcement mechanism that continues to shape beliefs and behaviors.