Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 25: Group Opinion

Emory S. Bogardus

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THANKS to intersocial stimulation, the desires and attitudes of people find expression through bundles of opinion, that is, group opinion, or public opinion. Group opinion, is specific, while public opinion refers either to the indefinite general opinion of a large group, such as a national group, or to the opinion of a "public," as the term was used in the preceding chapter. The latter usage is more exact, and hence better.

An opinion is what a person thinks about or his judgment of anything It is more superficial than an attitude ; a person's opinion is not always his real attitude because it may be expressed for effect or to secure recognition. Although cognitive it may be superficially so, being easily influenced by the desires or feeling elements.

Opinion arises out of personal experiences, but experience is one of the worst teachers possible when it leads a person to think that "he knows it all," when he concludes that his experiences are typical. Experience is a poor teacher when it results in the particularistic fallacy, namely, that a part is a fair sample of the whole. A single striking experience is all-powerful in the formation of one's opinion. Our opinions are generally made up from the knowledge of a few creditable or damaging facts about a person or movement. We condemn a whole race if we know two or three members who are rascals. In this day of highly complicated societary life it is folly to rely entirely on one's own experiences; yet many are doing nearly that.

Opinions are commonly handed down from a past that arrived at them unscientifically. They are assumed to apply to the present on the grounds that "human nature never changes." In the process of being transmitted they are mulled over and appear in the form of traditions or social memory.[1] "Tradition is the integration of opinion of many generations." If current opinion is undependable, then past opinion is still more so, and yet it is the integration of the two which constitutes present public values.

Points of view determine opinion. A person's point of view controls what new ideas he will debar or admit to his thinking.[2] Points of view

( 289) are adventitiously built up out of tradition and past experiences, and hence are not necessarily scientific.

Public opinion may refer to the opinion of "everybody" in the group, or more likely it may be the views of the majority. It is not based on "the mere number on each side of a question.[3] On one side there may be authorities and educators which give a minority greater force than a majority. Again, a minority may include those who hold to their views "more tenaciously than others" and thus influence lukewarm numbers. Public opinion represents not simply a majority, but "an effective majority."

Public opinion does not require unanimity ; it must have, however, the good will of the minority. The latter must feel "bound by connection, not by fear" to accept the rulership of the majority.[4] They must have a sense of obligation and participate ungrudgingly. In order that a minority may maintain this attitude, it must have the right of persuasion open to it, or else it cannot respect the majority.


An important reason for the unreliability of group opinion is the fact that people think in images. These may be real or genuine. Out of false interpretations and also from correct analyses of faulty traditions people construct defective pictures.[5] We get to thinking in stereotyped images and bend experiences to fit these stereotypes rather than construct new images to fit experiences. The stereotypes soon come to master us, or rather we fit ourselves into these molds which come to fit "as snugly as an old shoe."

"No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe. A world which turns out to be one in which those we honor are unworthy, and those we despise are noble, is nerve-wracking. There is anarchy if our order of precedence is not the only possible one."[6]

Stereotyped group thinking colors the thinking of the membership. Consequently, the same bit of truth may be interpreted in as many ways as there are standardized groups. Says Rabbi E. R. Trattner :

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"To the Socialist, Jesus is understood as a forerunner of Karl Marx; to the single-taxer He is the direct predecessor of Henry George; to the spiritualist He is the first psychic; to the Christian Scientist He receives His correct historical setting in the metaphysical teachings of Mrs. Eddy. Thus every `ism,' every sect, denomination, or party manufactures the kind of Jesus it wants."[7]

Another germane fact is that ordinary talk is perhaps the most common basis of opinion. An attempt by one person to discriminate is offset by the common practice to gossip. In nearly all groups there is gullible acceptance of anything new, startling, spectacular, pathological—about anybody. Gossip whirls which promote unscientific public opinion are caught up by the daily press and headlined to the world. On the other hand, scientificially established facts are hard to get, and, often being colorless and impersonal, are slow to spread.


An underlying group egoism makes opinion unreliable and biased. To blindness and narrowness of vision every group considers itself superior and views other groups with more or less disdain. Each racial group considers itself "the chosen people ;" each religious group views all non-members as heretics, pagans, or lost souls. Each occupation develops its own group-egoism and biases.[8]


Group opinion is not just the algebraic sum of the opinions of persons; it is more, namely, the result of the creativeness that comes from intersocial stimulation. The process is that already referred to in a preceding chapter in connection with the creativeness of a discussion group. It is allied to but superior to the contagion generated in a crowd. Group opinion is more than, as Bryce says, "an aggregate of the views men hold regarding matters that affect or interest the community." [9] Ellwood puts the idea this way : "Effective public opinion is always the co÷perative product of the interaction of many individual minds."[10]

To the extent that primary personal opinions are fallacious, derived

( 291) public opinion is also fallacious. The creativeness that groups including publics automatically produce may be emotional, as well as cognitive, and fictitious as well as authentic. The rise of group opinion without the development of adequate means of controlling its quality constitutes a serious social problem. The multiplication of newspapers, of motion picture films, and other means of creating opinion as well as stimulating desires, together with the current emphasis on commercialization, that is, of "selling" anything to the public that the public can be aroused to want, have placed people at the mercy of a dangerous monster.

Public opinion rules most persons with a powerful hand. As an agent of social control, it will be discussed in a later chapter, [11] but it may be asserted here that the force of public opinion is so powerful that only the strongest minded person can stand out against it. Group opinion is a gigantic mirror in which, whether they will or no, individuals see their own behavior reflected.

Much has been written about the tyranny of the group, and particularly of "the tyranny of the majority." [12] It has na´vely been thought that "majority rule" is necessarily democratic, but the opinion of the majority may be as autocratic as the opinion of a czar or king. The quality of group opinion depends on the nature of the persons who create it. If they are egoistic and self-willed then the opinion they generate will be tyrannically selfish. Majority opinion may be as autocratic as a Kaiser; the only safeguard is in the attitudes of the people. This tyranny is to be distinguished from "the fatalism of the multitude," i. e., the feeling that the multitude will prevail anyhow and that it is hopeless for one to try to change the opinion of immense numbers.

Group opinion often takes the form of group egoism. In recent years the molding of public opinion by private interests has become an organized business. Through advertising, and indirectly through the suppression of certain news, and worst of all, through the distortion of news, that is, the exploiting of certain phases of a situation and the disregard of other and more important phases, it is easy to hoodwink the public. There is scarcely an issue of a metropolitan newspaper that does not afford illustrations of the attempt to influence public opinion on behalf of particular interests under the guise of concern for the whole.

For years prior to 1914 the leading European governments, particularly the German government, carried on an extensive program of controlling

( 292) opinion. In Germany the method had become thoroughly organized, to the extent of controlling the public schools and the teachers and hence the little children.

The largest high-pressure campaign to influence a whole nation group within the shortest possible time was conducted in the United States in 1917 and 1918. After the people had reelected Woodrow Wilson president in November, 1916, for having "kept us out of war," it was necessary for the Administration the next April, following the declaration of war, to inaugurate a nation-wide program to reverse the opinion of a peace-loving public. Machinery was set up whereby 75,000 four-minute men delivered more than 750,000 speeches to an aggregate of over 300,000,000 individuals.[13] Every two weeks literature was sent to 600,000 teachers, and 200,000 lantern slides were circulated. Over 1,400 different designs for posters, cartoons, window cards, billboards, newspaper advertisements, buttons, and seals were made. In addition there was Mr. McAdoo's "stupendous organization"for the Liberty Loans, Mr. Hoover's far-reaching propaganda in behalf of food conservation, and the Red Cross and similar campaigns.[14] In consequence a tremendous amount of opinion was generated by the Government in behalf of fighting "to make the world safe for democracy."

A picturesque and dramatic illustration of a drawn out but none the less intense program to influence public opinion and to get the desired change registered, was the woman suffrage movement in the United States, which was really one "pauseless campaign" of fifty-two years duration. It included sub-campaigns as follows:

Fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters, 48o campaigns to get legislatures to submit amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks ; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.[15]

In all this the major appeals were divided between the voters, and the machinery of the dominant political parties who from 1860 on, "used their enormous organized power to block every move on behalf of woman suffrage."[16]

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The problem of free speech and a free press holds a vital relation to public opinion. To the extent that free speech is denied, group opinion becomes a factory product rather than a natural growth. In countries of special privilege free speech is curtailed until no opinions may be expressed hostile to the maintenance of the ruling classes in power. In Russia czarism and "proletarian dictatorship" have alike shot down sincere persons who dared to attack the class in political power.

Free speech does not mean license to destroy ruthlessly but rather liberty to build constructively. Those in power have a responsibility to stimulate, and to respond to a genuine freedom of speech, to take well-intentioned criticism at what it is worth, and thus to promote the growth of a healthy public opinion.


Group opinion is most reliable when all group members follow certain principles. These include (I) personal experiences extending over a period of time. Experiences of the moment are less apt to be truly representative of life than those brought by the social contacts of many years. (2) The experiences of one's associates add sidelights. They multiply one's points of contact and give a surer foundation to opinion. (3) By learning from the experiences of those who are living in social environments widely different from one's own, it is possible to broaden immeasurably one's knowledge and likewise arrive at sounder opinions. (4) By drawing upon the experiences of all who have lived and thought deeply in past generations it is possible still further to enhance the value of opinion. Through the published experiences of people living in distant lands and ages the whole world of experience, past and present, is brought to the individual's door. It is possible, therefore, to make group opinion scientific if all the members will take pains to base their personal opinions only on facts,—facts derived from personal experiences, from the experiences of associates, from the experiences of the representatives of other social environments, and from the experiences which have been integrated in the ripe judgments of the past.


In political democracies public opinion is supposed to be registered periodically at the ballot box ; but the complexity of modern civilization

( 294) makes this registering of opinion difficult. Issues become interwoven with personalities so often that the voter at times must choose, on the one hand, between a good candidate with a bad gang behind him, and a bad candidate with advanced principles. This intricacy is so baffling that the stay-at-home tendency is encouraged. The "party" emphasis likewise is stifling, for he who always "votes the ticket straight" has surrendered his political thinking to bosses, politicians, and special interests, and figures not at all in creating new and valuable public opinion.

Opinions on public issues are "tied up in two antagonistic bundles," the party "platforms," and all the voter can do is to vote for one bundle rather than the other, although each contains opinions he disapproves of. Hence, no one can figure out from an election just what is the state of political public opinion. The significance of an election is apt to be ambiguous.

Public opinion is active in regulating public administration. When the public never visits the sessions of the City Council except on private business, the administration of public affairs grows lax and graft creeps in. Private interests dominate. But where the public from a social welfare viewpoint takes an active interest in what its representatives are doing, the administration at once gains in social efficiency.

Democracy would be impossible without public opinion. In no other way can the will of the people function. To the extent that public opinion is free and unhampered, that it is not cajoled and exploited by private interests, that it is not dictated by the Government, that it arises naturally from an enlightened and socially responsible populace, democracy gives better results. Democracies, therefore, need to devote a large amount of attention to the functioning of public opinion.

In a democracy law fails unless it has the support of public opinion. A law becomes a dead letter when public approval forsakes it. There is a constant interaction between law and public opinion, but in general the latter is primary. When opinion becomes strong enough to secure a law, and then vigorously supports public officers until a generation develop habits of obedience to the specific law, its active support may be dispensed with.

When a law is put through by a zealous minority a period of lawlessness follows. Administrative officials in quarters where opinion against the law runs strong are unable to do their sworn duty. Insincere persons surreptitiously secure appointment to enforce the law, and then wink at its violation. No law is safe until supported by the habitual opinions of perhaps 75 per cent of the citizens.

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The radio bids fair to become a large factor in creating public opinion. Government officials broadcast income tax information to large radio publics ; questions are answered and people are instructed in making out their tax returns. Candidates for Congress address their districts by radio. Already there are several hundred broadcasting stations in our country, with, it is estimated, over three million daily "listening in." By radio it may soon be possible to bring a whole nation together at a given hour, transforming it into a gigantic public. It will perhaps not be long before the Chief Executive, in addition to reading an annual message to a few hundred Congressmen, will "speak naturally and with bis own voice" to the whole nation. In times of national crisis it will be possible to generate an inclusive public opinion among a hundred million people in a few hours' time. With wireless telephony leaping oceans and sending its messages by relay systems from continent to continent, the radio public may yet function to make the whole world one.


Public opinion integrates around values. In course of time every public develops a set of values, or objects which it is willing to sacrifice for. In the case of the nation they include : (I) the symbols of its nature, such as its flag, its heroes, its ceremonies, its racial and religious symbols ; (2) its property, chiefly its territory; (3) its cohesion, and (4) its "time-honored" institutions.[17]

I. Public opinion easily becomes crystallized around symbols, such as the flag, national monuments, historic trees, national heroes. In these the group becomes personified. They become sacred and not to be criticized. Wilson or Roosevelt may still be publicly attacked, but not Lincoln or Washington.

2. Any invasion by a foreign power of the nation's territory is at once met by a united and angry public opinion. The simple spreading of the news that an enemy has crossed the boundary line is more effective than years of argument in unifying opinion.

3. Group cohesion is rated high. Let any faction menace it, and public opinion rises automatically. Witness the Civil War in the United States. In all such cases the united opinion is not thought out, but rather

( 296) is produced by and borne aloft on gigantic feeling waves and desires for security.

4. Instruments of government, such as a Constitution, become sacred. It is almost impossible to abolish the antiquated "electoral college" in the United States. A king and a House of Lords are maintained tenaciously in England.

The continuity of group opinion is perhaps its greatest value. It ordinarily changes slowly and in unnoticed ways. A person holds one set of opinions today but some years later may discover himself ridiculing them. Opinion is tenacious, even refusing to give way before facts. Despite its weakness in this regard, it is strongly meritorious in holding a group together through the vicissitudes of time.


All politicians give attention to finding out the drift of public opinion. In many cases being a politician consists chiefly in finding out this drift, and clothing one's interests in whatever harmonizes with the drift as a means of getting them realized. A chief executive, as did President Harding, may not wish to initiate anything contrary to the will of the people or even to influence it, but if he can find out what it wishes, he aims to do its bidding. The process of determining the trend of public opinion is intricate and baffling. Successful politicians develop surprising accuracy in calculating the trend. Now and then they miss it as in the case of a former postmaster general who made a Christmas spirit appeal on behalf of a debarred motion picture actor, which appeal was met by a flood of protest from all over the United States.

Statesmen are more apt to err in gauging public opinion than politicians, for they are not so able to keep in touch with all classes. President Wilson's appeal in November, 1918, to the public to elect Democratic Congressmen illustrates well the possibility of error. Lloyd George, however, was so good a judge of public opinion that in the several years of his premiership he put forth contradictory programs in his attempts to do "the will of the people." He who would correctly measure the trend of public opinion must keep daily company not with a few "trusted" advisers or a particular "set" or professional group; he can make dependable judgments only "by moving freely about among all sorts and conditions of men and noting how they are affected by the news or the arguments brought from day to day to their knowledge."[18]



More important than gauging public opinion is the process of making it. How is public opinion on any subject created? There are several distinct types of people who influence opinion. I. In the first place there are the persons whose occupations make them representatives of public questions; they include legislators, judges, and administrative officials. These people are in the limelight, but often receive more credit than is their due as opinion creators. Even legislators usually follow group opinion rather than originate it.

2. There are people who in their private professions, such as lawyers, clergy, journalists, motion picture actors, are dealing all the time in one way or another with group questions. Lawyers are continually "taking sides" on public issues, the clergy speaks from the pulpit from Sunday to Sunday, while the journalist and the motion picture actor are every day or several times daily engaged in expressing feelings and attitudes relating to problems of common interest.

3. Behind groups (I) and (2) there are promoters and the representatives of special interests, who own or employ or dominate a vast army of legislators, lawyers, clergy, journalists, and motion picture actors. The ex.tent of this influence is admittedly great; its power is expressed so subtly and so indirectly that it must be ranked as one of the chief makers of group opinion. Periodically works of fiction or motion picture films appear in which the author or writer has used a worthy social value as a cloak for propaganda. Even thinking people are deceived thereby.

John Galsworthy declares public opinion is no longer made by peoples but by three strong social institutions :

To sum up, governments and peoples are no longer in charge. Our fate is really in the hands of the three great powers—Science, Finance, and the Press. Underneath the showy political surface of things, those three great powers are secretly determining the march of the nations ; and there is little hope for the future unless they can mellow and develop on international lines. [19]

Apropos of this observation is the announcement that Lords Rothermore and Beaverbrook have secured almost a monopoly of the popular press of Great Britain, that Hearst aspires to own a hundred daily newspapers, that Munsey has added the New York Globe to his New York Herald, Telegram, and Sun collection. The tendency of the metropolitan press

( 298) "to pass into the hands of an ever-smaller body of rich men" is probably not wholesome for democracy.

Of Galsworthy's triumvirate, Finance is perhaps the chief offender, for it "buys up" both Science and the Press. "Politics" is another of its tools, especially in undermining fundamental social welfare. The woman suffrage movement began in 1848; it was expected to give women the vote, but "the years went by, decade following decade," and twenty-six other countries gave the vote to their women while America delayed. "Why the delay ?" Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie R. Shuler answer their own question, showing how public opinion was throttled even in a democracy.[20]

It was not an antagonistic public sentiment, nor yet an uneducated or indifferent public sentiment—it was the control of public sentiment, through the trading and the trickery, the buying and the selling of American politics.

Propaganda is as old as mankind. It is either open, or secret. In the latter form it is most dangerous for it hoodwinks. When used to deceive people regarding public questions it sinks to the pernicious. Note the following characterization :

Propaganda is twin brother to advertising, but goes beyond commercial advertising in that control of fundamental attitudes on great issues is sought, and not infrequently for no perceptible benefit to the people whose sentiments are thus commandeered and dominated. [21]

4, There are those who are scientifically trained in the analysis of social situations or who are interested in people and personalities above all things else, who have combined their love of humanity with a broad vision, and who in journals, magazines, in public schools and colleges, on the lecture platform and in the pulpit, are devoting their lives to creating progressive and helpful group opinions. Sometimes these people become ardent champions and fight courageously for woman suffrage, prohibition, or workmen's compensation. Sometimes they labor quietly as social workers. At times their influence upsets the achievements of group (3), and again, is defeated by this same group.

5. There is a large number of citizens, engaged on the farm, in the shop or marketplace, in the home attending to "their own business,"who are characterized by common sense, human sympathy, and a sense of fair play, and who now and then, as occasion demands, express themselves on public questions.[22] There is always a large amount of talking

( 299) and reading going on among them, but only on the rare occasions when they are aroused to action is their influence great. They constitute a crude moral force, and furnish substantial material for the organization of a third party when the "old parties" or alignments grow reactionary.

6. Also numerous are those who do little thinking and reading, and who are not interested in public matters at all. Their horizons are very limited. They vote as "Bill" or "Tom" tells them to vote. Their sense of social responsibility is almost nil.

7. A small group of makers of public opinion are composed of "radicals," "agitators," and persons who are "agin" everything that exists, and feel that since things are about as bad as possible, any change will be an improvement. These persons are usually "up against" the harshest phases of life, and influence public opinion chiefly by calling attention to unendurable conditions.


Integrated opinion represents the group mind. Mental creativeness in small assemblies is the group mind at its best. The contagion of a crowd or mob represents the group mind in its most openly energetic and almost vicious forms. To the extent that a person acts differently in a group from his actions as an individual, we verify the reality of a group mind. Such a mind does not exist outside the minds of persons, and yet it is far more than the mere aggregate of these, for it includes group loyalty and group morale, the themes of two succeeding chapters, but most important of all, the mental creativeness which results from intersocial stimulation in assembly and discussion groups.

The group mind possesses a conscience. Like the "conscience" of the individual, the group conscience includes not only opinion but sentiment and judgment. It is the group passing judgment on its members, group movements, and other groups, but rarely on itself as a group, and hence, the reason for the phrase, the conscienceless group. It combines sentiments and feelings with opinions, and possesses ethical quality.


I. Group opinion originates in talk, experiences, points of view, and tradition.

2. The unreliability of much group opinion is due to the false pictures which people have in their heads.

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3. Group opinion is more than an aggregate of opinions; it includes opinion created in persons by their interchange of opinion.

4. Group opinion may be as tyrannical as an autocrat; the voice of even a majority may be relentless.

5. Democracy is realized to the extent that there is freedom of opinion.

6. Opinion becomes crystallized into group values.

7. Law is spineless without the support of public opinion.

8. The trend of public opinion can best be sensed by talking regularly with persons in all walks of life.

9. In the making of public opinion several different types of people are involved ; the two most important are the powerful but sinister and secret promoters of opinion in behalf of private interests, and the socially-minded public speakers and educators.

10. The totality of public opinion at any time constitutes the group mind.


1. What is group opinion?

2. What are traditions?

3. What is meant by "the pictures in our heads"?

4. How do you account for the tyranny of the majority?

5. Why is public opinion so often mistaken?

6. What forces tend to corrupt public opinion?

7. Why is public opinion vital to democracy?

8. What is the relation of public opinion to law?

9. How may the tendencies of public opinion be observed?

10. In what ways is the press helpful in molding public opinion? Harmful?

11. How does public opinion determine the policies of the press?

12. What would you say is the chief characteristic of the group mind?

13. Compare the group mind and the social conscience.


1. In what ways is group opinion different from personal opinion?

2. What practical ways could you use to shift group opinion toward your opinions?

3. What "pictures in the heads" of anyone whom you know do you consider inaccurate?

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4. How may a democracy safeguard itself against "the tyranny of the majority"?

5. Is a strong political party system, such as we have in the United States, on the whole favorable or unfavorable to the development of a sound public opinion?

6. What is a better method of getting at the truth of a question than the debating society method?

7. Compare the group minds of any two groups of which you are a member.

8. What is the relation of leadership to the mass of the people in the formation of public opinion?


Bryce, James, Modern Democracies (Macmillan, 1921), Vol. I, Chs. XV, XXIV, XXXVI.

Cooley, C. H., Social Process (Scribners, 1918), Ch. XXXI.

———, Social Organization (Scribners, 1909), Chs. XII, XIII.

Lowell, A. Lawrence, Public Opinion and Popular Government (Macmillan, 1922).

Lippmann, Walter, Public Opinion (Harcourt, Brace: 1921).

Mecklin, J. M., Introduction to Social Ethics (Harcourt, Brace and Howe : 1920), Ch. IX.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1908), Ch. XXII.


  1. F. H. Giddings, Principles of Sociology (Macmillan, 1896).
  2. E. C. Hayes, Publications of American Sociological Society, XVI: 2.
  3. A. L. Lowell, Public Opinion and Popular Government (Longmans, Green: 1921), pp. 13, 25.
  4. Ibid., pp. 15, 34.
  5. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Harcourt, Brace: 1922), p. 3.
  6. Ibid., pp. 95, 96.
  7. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 1923, Part II, p. 3.
  8. An important phase of this theme has already been treated in the preceding chapter under the heading, "Occupational Egocentrism."
  9. Modern Democracies (Macmillan, 1921), p.153.
  10. The Reconstruction of Religion (Macmillan, 1922), p. 300.
  11. Chapter XXX.
  12. James Bryce (Macmillan, 1888), American Commonwealth, Vol. II, Ch. LXXVI.
  13. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, p. 46.
  14. Ibid., p. 47.
  15. Can and Shuler, Woman Suffrage and Politics, p. 107.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Cf. F. H. Giddings, Principles of Sociology (Macmillan, 1896), p. 148.
  18. Bryce, Modern Democracies, I : 156.
  19. 'International Thought : Key to the Future," Living Age, Vol. 319, p. 399.
  20. Woman Suffrage and Politics (Scribners, 1923), p. viii.
  21. A. D. Weeks, The Control of the Social Mind (Appleton, 1923), p. 72.
  22. Bryce, Modern Democracies, I : 156 ff.

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