Popular Opinion

A few years ago, there was a brief moment in the NFL where all anyone could talk about was Tim Tebow.  Tebow was a controversial figure who I didn’t have much of an opinion on, but he sparked a comment from Chuck Klosterman (I think) that changed the way I think about political discussions.  I’ve never been able to track the exact quote down, but it was something like “half the country loves him, half the country hates him, but both sides think they’re an oppressed minority.” Now I don’t know if that was really true with Tebow, but I think about it every time someone says “what no one is talking about…” or “the conventional wisdom is….” or even just a basic “most people think is….” I always get curious about how we know this.  It’s not unusual that I’ll hear someone I know and love assert that the media never talks about something I think the media constantly talks about. It’s a perplexing issue.

Anyway, that interest is why I was super excite by this Washington Post puzzle that showed how easily our opinions about what others think can be skewed even if we’re not engaging in selection bias.  It also illustrates two things well: 1) why the opinion of well known people can be important and 2) why a well known person advocating for something does not automatically mean that issue is “settled”.

Good things to consider the next time I find myself claiming that “no one realizes” or “everyone thinks that”.

2 thoughts on “Popular Opinion

  1. Great article. I knew something of this but had long stopped taking it into account. It’s not just popular people who have more impact, but noisier irritating people have more impact in the negative. The gay people I know will tend to be the more outgoing or obvious ones. They may not be representative. The Buddhists I know may be largely those who have posters on their office walls.

    As for what everyone is talking about and no one is talking about, I will bet there are some consistent currents in that. In the 1990’s, any discussion of politics on a national level pretty much meant the 3 networks, the NYT and Washington Post, Time and Newsweek, which were monolithic in their politics. CNN had just graduated from being Chicken Noodle News, Fox and Drudge didn’t come on until the late 90’s, and Rush Limbaugh was an unpredictable new force looked upon as a zombie invasion. Yet even then, people got their political views from other places – indirectly from family, churches, and friends, regional and ethnic identities. The indirect messages of movies, music, and TV were also big. So while it was absolutely correct to say that “no one is talking about X” if the big media sources weren’t talking about it, it was in another sense not very true.

    These days, FB and twitter have very different trends from the NYT. While they overlap, they also exclude each other. We tend to define by what we see as the main sources of news, and that is very cultural and generational. If the radio news, especially NPR, and newspaper front pages don’t mention something, I consider that evidence that “no one is talking about it.” Because where I work, that’s true among the clinical professionals.


    • I think it’s particularly important to keep this in mind with social media and targeted search results. Facebook and Google both have algorithms that suggest things to you based on what you already do or have expressed interest in, so your belief that “everyone says” could be confirmed merely because you already believed it.


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