Zaller’s Theory of Opinion Formation


ZallerZaller presents the Receive-Accept-Sample Model, which has become a very influential theory of opinion formation in public opinion literature. To begin with, the inexplicable inconsistency in the survey response, and the unresolved debate on the political ignorance are the main factors that motivate Zaller in his study. His objective is to find out how individuals convert information into opinions. In the RAS model, Zaller proposes four axioms that he argues to have explicative power about opinion formation. These axioms help explain how an individual is susceptible to form an opinion when exposed to a message, or in which circumstances the received message is accepted or rejected by the individual. Mainly, the model proposes that the opinionation is highly influenced by the political awareness and the intensity of the message. Zaller presents his arguments, makes some deductions from his axioms, and his aim is to test these deductions with empirical data to confirm them.

4 Axioms of the Model:

To understand the conversion of information into public opinion, the comprehension of the four axioms put forward by Zaller is crucial. Firstly, the reception axiom basically proposes that someone with a higher level of cognitive engagement is more likely to receive political messages because they have more exposure to political information. However, we should keep in mind that reception of the message does not necessarily mean the acceptance of the message. Secondly, the resistance axiom is about the resistance to the messages that are inconsistent with the existing political predispositions. It is the political predispositions that regulate whether or not to accept the political communication that is received. For instance, a Republican will resist the arguments coming from the Democrats, and vice versa. Here, Zaller talks about the role of the credibility of the information provider. The information given by the untrusted sources receives more resistance among the low aware people whereas the credibility is less important than the arguments among the highly aware people. Thirdly, the accessibility axiom refers to the idea that the more recent a consideration is, the easier to access to it from memory. Lastly, the response axiom puts forward that respondents’ answers in surveys are driven by the considerations that are most salient and accessible to them. The last two axioms are also significant for the clarification of Zaller’s position on what the surveys represent, as he suggests that the answers in a survey do not represent the true attitudes of the respondents, but rather their true feelings. So, these four axioms constitute the RAS Model, and what Zaller argues is the opinions of an individual are about balancing considerations. As the opinion consists of the balance of many considerations, the term “attitude change” does not simply refer to the change in a consideration, but it refers to the change in the balance of positive and negative considerations about a particular issue. Every new consideration alters the balance of the considerations, which possibly influences the ultimate opinion, therefore triggering an opinion or attitude change.

For information to be accepted as a consideration, it needs to be consistent with the existing political predispositions. When he or she is asked about a particular issue, the individual makes use of the most salient considerations that are at the top of the head, and balances these considerations, which gives the opinion on the particular issue at that moment. Besides, Zaller suggests that there are two dimensions in the balancing process of the considerations. First dimension is the society-level variables, and the second one is individual-level variables. The former can be summed to the intensity of the elite discourse while the latter refers to the political awareness and values of the individual.

Who is more likely to undergo an opinion change?

The author also seeks to observe a pattern of attitude change. He notices that change in opinion occurs mostly in the moderately aware individuals. According to Zaller, people are exposed to messages, and this exposure may trigger an opinion change. He categorizes the messages in two types. The more intense message is considered as the dominant message while the less intense message is qualified as countervailing message. The opinion change may happen in both directions. What is determinant here is what Zaller defines partisan, inertial, and countervalent resistance. According to the author, resistance has an important role in opinion change. With the equation he uses to forecast the probability of opinion change, he finds out that the political opinion change is highly related to the political awareness and political predispositions. For instance, on the one hand, the politically low aware people, who are inattentive to politics, will receive little information that can trigger a change in opinion. However, when they receive information, they are very likely to accept it as consideration, as they do not have a big storage of existing political considerations, which makes them less resisting to the information. On the other hand, the more aware people, who follow politics closely, have more political predispositions and a large storage of political considerations; therefore, they will have a bigger tendency to resist to persuasive communication that is inconsistent with their existing predispositions even if their probability of receiving the message is very high. On the contrary, the moderately politically aware people are more likely to receive information than the lows, and they have less political dispositions than the highs; therefore they resist less than the high, which makes them more likely to undergo an opinion change.

The attitude change consists of two steps:

At the reception level, political awareness is determinant. The more the individual is politically aware, the more s/he is likely to receive political messages. At the acceptance level, the resistance is decisive, which is defined by the value distance of the individual from the information. When the distance is minimal, the resistance caused by political awareness has little effect. On the contrary, when the distance is great, then the resistance caused by the awareness becomes significant for opinion change. The author calls it awareness-induced resistance effect. Zaller exemplifies this with the mass opinion change in the support for cuts in defense spending between 1980 and 1982. Making use of the NES data, he analyzes two cases to see the pattern in attitude change. The first case focuses on the defense-spending cut. Zaller observes an attitude change into a liberal direction that is caused by the dominant anti-defense spending message. The public support for defense spending cut rose from %10 in 1980 to %28 in 1982. What’s more, while he observes a monotonic relationship between the attitude change and the political awareness among the Democrats, he finds a non-monotonic relationship among the Republicans. The other case focuses on the issue of U.S involvement in Central America. The Iran-Contra affair brought a change in public’s support in the U.S involvement in the Central America in the conservative direction. The President Reagan’s popularity decreased significantly because of the allegations that his administration broke the arm embargo on Iran in order to fund the guerillas in Nicaragua so that they would overthrow the communist government. Despite the decrease in his popularity, the affair made Reagan’s policy in Central America highly publicized, which made it the dominant message, and people were exposed to this issue of U.S involvement in the mentioned area. As a result, the support in greater U.S involvement grew from %28 to %38 even if the president’s popularity was damaged. Zaller also finds out that political awareness among Republicans generates more resistance to the defense spending cuts whereas it generates that much less resistance among the politically aware Democrats. This supports Zaller’s argument according to which the existing political predisposition, just like awareness, has a big role to play in the opinion formation.

Two Types of Information: one-sided and two-sided information

Moreover, Zaller describes two types of information: one-sided information, and two-sided information. It is defined basically by which direction the flow of the information goes. As for one-sided information, Zaller takes up three new issues that people had no prior opinions about such as the economic recession in 1982, federally mandated school desegregation, and the nuclear freeze. This makes it easier to attribute the opinion formation to the reception and acceptance or rejection of information conveyed by the elites. The selected new issues vary in their level of intensity and familiarity. More precisely, the desegregation issue is qualified as middle intensity message because it is of high familiarity even if it does not dominate the media for months. Nuclear freeze is a foreign issue of middle intensity and low familiarity because it has no direct effect on one’s life. Lastly, the economy is of low intensity. The empirical tests on these issues allow Zaller to confirm some characteristics on his typology of attitude change.

What does Zaller find?

He finds out that low intensity and low familiarity messages trigger change among highly aware persons. He also generalizes that when the message’s distance to the value of the receiver is small, the relationship between attitude change and awareness is linear. In other words, the conservative messages will create a bigger change among the highly aware conservatives. He, again, finds more supporting evidence that more aware people resist more to change. More specifically, evidence shows that the more aware people evaluate Reagan’s presidency by not only making remarks about the Iran-Contra affair that was publicized and made salient by the information providers, but also by making remarks about non Iran-Contra affairs. Therefore, the balance of the considerations is less affected among the highly aware individuals, as they do not have only considerations on the affair to evaluate the president. Moreover, interestingly, Zaller proposes that age has an influence on resistance. For instance, the older Republicans are more susceptible to resist accepting the internationalism of Truman whereas the young Republicans are more susceptible to accept it. The reason for this is shown to be the existing cues to reject the new ideas in that older Republicans have more cues about their party’s isolationism policy that they reject the internationalism. However, the effect of age on resistance can be observed in both directions.

As for the two-sided information, Zaller examines the Vietnam War from the beginning to the end. He shows that the liberals changed attitudes from supporting the war to opposing it; however, the conservatives kept supporting it from the beginning. The opposition by the liberals is simultaneous with the intensity of the anti-war message, which is the countervalent message. Namely, the pro-war message lost its intensity throughout the time, and the anti-war message steadily became more intense, which is thought to lead to attitude change among liberals. This is also considered as strong evidence that the intensity of the message defines to what extent the considerations are accessible in their minds, which also shapes people’s immediate propensity in the survey responses. Further, Zaller suggests that even if people have values and their own level of awareness, the change in attitude is dependent on the elite discourse that interacts the values and political awareness in a certain direction. He also adds that when the elite discourse is united, the public attitude is less ideological, and when it is divided, it becomes more ideological. Lastly, Zaller finds evidence from the house elections that highly aware people receive the countervailing message, and this may lead them to oppose the incumbent.