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New Study Reveals Why People Underestimate Polling Effects

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A recent study published in the journal Mass Communication and Society sheds light on the significant gap between the actual and perceived effects of public opinion polls.

The study by Yujin Heo, Junghyun Moon, S Mo Jones-Jang, and Sungeun Chung looks into the biases that cause people to underestimate how much polls influence their own opinions in comparison to others. This groundbreaking study provides valuable insights into the psychology behind polling effects and offers implications for media influence and public opinion research.

Polling has long been a tool for gauging public opinion on various issues, ranging from political elections to social policies. However, there is a common perception that while polls may influence others, individuals themselves remain unaffected. This phenomenon, known as the third-person effect, was the central focus of the study. The researchers aimed to explore the cognitive biases that cause people to misjudge the impact of polls on their own attitudes compared to their perception of the impact on others.

The study employed a two-wave panel survey methodology. In the first wave, respondents were asked about their attitudes towards a specific issue—in this case, the construction of cable cars in national parks, a contentious topic in South Korea. A week later, in the second wave, participants were exposed to manipulated poll reports showing either majority support or opposition for the issue. The participants were then asked to reassess their attitudes and estimate the degree of change they attributed to the poll report.

The findings revealed a significant discrepancy between actual and perceived attitude changes due to polling effects. On average, individuals showed a measurable shift in their attitudes after being exposed to poll results. However, when asked to self-report these changes, respondents significantly underestimated the extent of their own attitude shifts while overestimating the impact on others.

One of the critical factors influencing this bias was the respondents’ preexisting attitudes. Those who initially opposed the issue were more likely to underestimate the poll’s influence on their own attitudes if their opposition was weakened after poll exposure. Conversely, those who initially supported the issue underestimated the impact if their support was weakened. This bias was consistent across both the bandwagon effect (where individuals align with the majority opinion) and the underdog effect (where individuals support the minority opinion).

The study’s results underscore the complexity of how people perceive media influence. The researchers suggest that cognitive biases such as false uniqueness bias and motivated reasoning play significant roles in shaping these perceptions. False uniqueness bias leads individuals to view their reactions as more unique than they are, while motivated reasoning involves processing information in a way that supports existing beliefs.

These findings have broader implications for understanding media effects and public opinion formation. The researchers argue that recognising these biases is crucial for developing more effective communication strategies and improving public understanding of media influence.

The study also highlights several areas for future research. The authors identified one drawback as the lack of research into the behavioural effects of these biassed perceptions. Understanding how these misperceptions influence actions, such as voting behaviour or support for policy changes, could provide deeper insights into the broader impact of polling and media reports.

The study calls for further exploration into how prior perceptions of public opinion distribution affect the perceived impact of polls. People may be more likely to discredit poll results that contradict their prior beliefs about public opinion, thus influencing their perceived susceptibility to these polls.

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