Public Opinion



NATURALLY it is possible to make a rough estimate only of the amount
of attention people give each day to informing themselves about public
affairs. Yet it is interesting that three estimates that I have
examined agree tolerably well, though they were made at different
times, in different places, and by different methods. [Footnote: July,
1900. D. F. Wilcox, _The American Newspaper: A Study in Social
Psychology_, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science, vol. xvi, p. 56. (The statistical tables are reproduced in
James Edward Rogers, _The American Newspaper_.)

1916 (?) W. D. Scott, _The Psychology of Advertising_, pp.
226-248. See also Henry Foster Adams, _Advertising and its Mental
Laws_, Ch. IV.

1920 _Newspaper Reading Habits of College Students_, by Prof.
George Burton Hotchkiss and Richard B. Franken, published by the
Association of National Advertisers, Inc., 15 East 26th Street, New
York City.]

A questionnaire was sent by Hotchkiss and Franken to 1761 men and
women college students in New York City, and answers came from all but
a few. Scott used a questionnaire on four thousand prominent business
and professional men in Chicago and received replies from twenty-three
hundred. Between seventy and seventy-five percent of all those who
replied to either inquiry thought they spent a quarter of an hour a
day reading newspapers. Only four percent of the Chicago group guessed
at less than this and twenty-five percent guessed at more. Among the
New Yorkers a little over eight percent figured their newspaper
reading at less than fifteen minutes, and seventeen and a half at

Very few people have an accurate idea of fifteen minutes, so the
figures are not to be taken literally. Moreover, business men,
professional people, and college students are most of them liable to a
curious little bias against appearing to spend too much time over the
newspapers, and perhaps also to a faint suspicion of a desire to be
known as rapid readers. All that the figures can justly be taken to
mean is that over three quarters of those in the selected groups rate
rather low the attention they give to printed news of the outer world.

These time estimates are fairly well confirmed by a test which is less
subjective. Scott asked his Chicagoans how many papers they read each
day, and was told that

14 percent read but one paper
46 ” ” two papers
21 ” ” three papers
10 ” ” four papers
3 ” ” five papers
2 ” ” six papers
3 ” ” all the papers (eight
at the time of this inquiry).

The two- and three-paper readers are sixty-seven percent, which comes
fairly close to the seventy-one percent in Scott’s group who rate
themselves at fifteen minutes a day. The omnivorous readers of from
four to eight papers coincide roughly with the twenty-five percent who
rated themselves at more than fifteen minutes.


It is still more difficult to guess how the time is distributed. The
college students were asked to name “the five features which interest
you most.” Just under twenty percent voted for “general news,” just
under fifteen for editorials, just under twelve for “politics,” a
little over eight for finance, not two years after the armistice a
little over six for foreign news, three and a half for local, nearly
three for business, and a quarter of one percent for news about
“labor.” A scattering said they were most interested in sports,
special articles, the theatre, advertisements, cartoons, book reviews,
“accuracy,” music, “ethical tone,” society, brevity, art, stories,
shipping, school news, “current news,” print. Disregarding these,
about sixty-seven and a half percent picked as the most interesting
features news and opinion that dealt with public affairs.

This was a mixed college group. The girls professed greater interest
than the boys in general news, foreign news, local news, politics,
editorials, the theatre, music, art, stories, cartoons,
advertisements, and “ethical tone.” The boys on the other hand were
more absorbed in finance, sports, business page, “accuracy” and
“brevity.” These discriminations correspond a little too closely with
the ideals of what is cultured and moral, manly and decisive, not to
make one suspect the utter objectivity of the replies.

Yet they agree fairly well with the replies of Scott’s Chicago
business and professional men. They were asked, not what features
interested them most, but why they preferred one newspaper to another.
Nearly seventy-one percent based their conscious preference on local
news (17.8%), or political (15.8%) or financial (11.3%), or foreign
(9.5%), or general (7.2%), or editorials (9%). The other thirty
percent decided on grounds not connected with public affairs. They
ranged from not quite seven who decided for ethical tone, down to one
twentieth of one percent who cared most about humor.

How do these preferences correspond with the space given by newspapers
to various subjects? Unfortunately there are no data collected on this
point for the newspapers read by the Chicago and New York groups at
the time the questionnaires were made. But there is an interesting
analysis made over twenty years ago by Wilcox. He studied one hundred
and ten newspapers in fourteen large cities, and classified the
subject matter of over nine thousand columns.

Averaged for the whole country the various newspaper matter was found
to fill:

{ (a) War News 17.9
{ { Foreign 1.2
{ (b) General ” 21.8 { Politics 6.4
I. News 55.3 { { Crime 3.1
{ { Misc. 11.1
{ { Business 8.2
{ (c) Special ” 15.6 { Sport 5.1
{ Society 2.3

II. Illustrations 3.1

III. Literature 2.4
{ (a) Editorials 3.9
IV. Opinion 7.1 { (b) Letters & Exchange 3.2

V. Advertisements 32.1

In order to bring this table into a fair comparison, it is necessary
to exclude the space given to advertisements, and recompute the
percentages. For the advertisements occupied only an infinitesimal
part of the conscious preference of the Chicago group or the college
group. I think this is justifiable for our purposes because the press
prints what advertisements it can get, [Footnote: Except those which it
regards as objectionable, and those which, in rare instances, are
crowded out.] whereas the rest of the paper is designed to the taste
of its readers. The table would then read:

{War News 26.4-
{ {Foreign 1.8-
I. News 81.4+{General News 32.0+ {Political 9.4+
{ {Crime 4.6-
{ {Misc. 16.3+
{ {Business 12.1-
{Special ” 23.0- {Sporting 7.5+
{Society 3.3-
II. Illustrations 4.6-
III. Literature 3.5+
IV. Opinion 10.5- {Editorials 5.8-
{Letters 4.7+

In this revised table if you add up the items which may be supposed to
deal with public affairs, that is to say war, foreign, political,
miscellaneous, business news, and opinion, you find a total of 76.5%
of the edited space devoted in 1900 to the 70.6% of reasons given by
Chicago business men in 1916 for preferring a particular newspaper,
and to the five features which most interested 67.5% of the New York
College students in 1920.

This would seem to show that the tastes of business men and college
students in big cities to-day still correspond more or less to the
averaged judgments of newspaper editors in big cities twenty years
ago. Since that time the proportion of features to news has
undoubtedly increased, and so has the circulation and the size of
newspapers. Therefore, if to-day you could secure accurate replies
from more typical groups than college students or business and
professional men, you would expect to find a smaller percentage of
time devoted to public affairs, as well as a smaller percentage of
space. On the other hand you would expect to find that the average man
spends more than the quarter of an hour on his newspaper, and that
while the percentage of space given to public affairs is less than
twenty years ago the net amount is greater.

No elaborate deductions are to be drawn from these figures. They help
merely to make somewhat more concrete our notions of the effort that
goes day by day into acquiring the data of our opinions. The
newspapers are, of course, not the only means, but they are certainly
the principal ones. Magazines, the public forum, the chautauqua, the
church, political gatherings, trade union meetings, women’s clubs, and
news serials in the moving picture houses supplement the press. But
taking it all at the most favorable estimate, the time each day is
small when any of us is directly exposed to information from our
unseen environment.




The unseen environment is reported to us chiefly by words. These words
are transmitted by wire or radio from the reporters to the editors who
fit them into print. Telegraphy is expensive, and the facilities are
often limited. Press service news is, therefore, usually coded. Thus a
dispatch which reads,–

“Washington, D. C. June I.–The United States regards the question of
German shipping seized in this country at the outbreak of hostilities
as a closed incident,”

may pass over the wires in the following form:

“Washn i. The Uni Stas rgds tq of Ger spg seized in ts cou at t outbk
o hox as a clod incident.” [Footnote: Phillip’s Code.]

A news item saying:

“Berlin, June 1, Chancellor Wirth told the Reichstag to-day in
outlining the Government’s program that ‘restoration and
reconciliation would be the keynote of the new Government’s policy.’
He added that the Cabinet was determined disarmament should be carried
out loyally and that disarmament would not be the occasion of the
imposition of further penalties by the Allies.”

may be cabled in this form:

“Berlin 1. Chancellor Wirth told t Reichstag tdy in outlining the gvts
pgn tt qn restoration & reconciliation wd b the keynote f new gvts
policy. qj He added ttt cabinet ws dtmd disarmament sd b carried out
loyally & tt disarmament wd n b. the ocan f imposition of further
penalties bi t alis.”

In this second item the substance has been culled from a long speech
in a foreign tongue, translated, coded, and then decoded. The
operators who receive the messages transcribe them as they go along,
and I am told that a good operator can write fifteen thousand or even
more words per eight hour day, with a half an hour out for lunch and
two ten minute periods for rest.


A few words must often stand for a whole succession of acts, thoughts,
feelings and consequences. We read:

“Washington, Dec. 23–A statement charging Japanese military
authorities with deeds more ‘frightful and barbarous’ than anything
ever alleged to have occurred in Belgium during the war was issued
here to-day by the Korean Commission, based, the Commission said, on
authentic reports received by it from Manchuria.”

Here eyewitnesses, their accuracy unknown, report to the makers of
‘authentic reports’; they in turn transmit these to a commission five
thousand miles away. It prepares a statement, probably much too long
for publication, from which a correspondent culls an item of print
three and a half inches long. The meaning has to be telescoped in such
a way as to permit the reader to judge how much weight to give to the

It is doubtful whether a supreme master of style could pack all the
elements of truth that complete justice would demand into a hundred
word account of what had happened in Korea during the course of
several months. For language is by no means a perfect vehicle of
meanings. Words, like currency, are turned over and over again, to
evoke one set of images to-day, another to-morrow. There is no
certainty whatever that the same word will call out exactly the same
idea in the reader’s mind as it did in the reporter’s. Theoretically,
if each fact and each relation had a name that was unique, and if
everyone had agreed on the names, it would be possible to communicate
without misunderstanding. In the exact sciences there is an approach
to this ideal, and that is part of the reason why of all forms of
world-wide cooperation, scientific inquiry is the most effective.

Men command fewer words than they have ideas to express, and language,
as Jean Paul said, is a dictionary of faded metaphors. [Footnote:
Cited by White, _Mechanisms of Character Formation._] The
journalist addressing half a million readers of whom he has only a dim
picture, the speaker whose words are flashed to remote villages and
overseas, cannot hope that a few phrases will carry the whole burden
of their meaning. “The words of Lloyd George, badly understood and
badly transmitted,” said M. Briand to the Chamber of Deputies,
[Footnote: Special Cable to _The New York Times,_ May 25, 1921,
by Edwin L, James. ] “seemed to give the Pan-Germanists the idea that
the time had come to start something.” A British Prime Minister,
speaking in English to the whole attentive world, speaks his own
meaning in his own words to all kinds of people who will see their
meaning in those words. No matter how rich or subtle–or rather the
more rich and the more subtle that which he has to say, the more his
meaning will suffer as it is sluiced into standard speech and then
distributed again among alien minds. [Footnote: In May of 1921,
relations between England and France were strained by the insurrection
of M. Korfanty in Upper Silesia. The London Correspondence of the
_Manchester Guardian_ (May 20, 1921), contained the following

“The Franco-English Exchange in Words.

“In quarters well acquainted with French ways and character I find a
tendency to think that undue sensibility has been shown by our press
and public opinion in the lively and at times intemperate language of
the French press through the present crisis. The point was put to me
by a well-informed neutral observer in the following manner.

“Words, like money, are tokens of value. They represent meaning,
therefore, and just as money, their representative value goes up and
down. The French word ‘etonnant’ was used by Bossuet with a terrible
weight of meaning which it has lost to-day. A similar thing can be
observed with the English word ‘awful.’ Some nations constitutionally
tend to understate, others to overstate. What the British Tommy called
an unhealthy place could only be described by an Italian soldier by
means of a rich vocabulary aided with an exuberant mimicry. Nations
that understate keep their word-currency sound. Nations that overstate
suffer from inflation in their language.

“Expressions such as ‘a distinguished scholar,’ ‘a clever writer,’
must be translated into French as ‘a great savant,’ ‘an exquisite
master.’ It is a mere matter of exchange, just as in France one pound
pays 46 francs, and yet one knows that that does not increase its
value at home. Englishmen reading the French press should endeavour to
work out a mental operation similar to that of the banker who puts
back francs into pounds, and not forget in so doing that while in
normal times the change was 25 it is now 46 on account of the war. For
there is a war fluctuation on word exchanges as well as on money

“The argument, one hopes, works both ways, and Frenchmen do not fail
to realize that there is as much value behind English reticence as
behind their own exuberance of expression.”]

Millions of those who are watching him can read hardly at all.
Millions more can read the words but cannot understand them. Of those
who can both read and understand, a good three-quarters we may assume
have some part of half an hour a day to spare for the subject. To them
the words so acquired are the cue for a whole train of ideas on which
ultimately a vote of untold consequences may be based. Necessarily the
ideas which we allow the words we read to evoke form the biggest part
of the original data of our opinions. The world is vast, the
situations that concern us are intricate, the messages are few, the
biggest part of opinion must be constructed in the imagination.

When we use the word “Mexico” what picture does it evoke in a resident
of New York? Likely as not, it is some composite of sand, cactus, oil
wells, greasers, rum-drinking Indians, testy old cavaliers flourishing
whiskers and sovereignty, or perhaps an idyllic peasantry à la Jean
Jacques, assailed by the prospect of smoky industrialism, and fighting
for the Rights of Man. What does the word “Japan” evoke? Is it a vague
horde of slant-eyed yellow men, surrounded by Yellow Perils, picture
brides, fans, Samurai, banzais, art, and cherry blossoms? Or the word
“alien”? According to a group of New England college students, writing
in the year 1920, an alien was the following: [Footnote: _The New
Republic_: December 29, 1920, p. 142. ]

“A person hostile to this country.”
“A person against the government.”
“A person who is on the opposite side.”
“A native of an unfriendly country.”
“A foreigner at war.”
“A foreigner who tries to do harm to the country he is in.”
“An enemy from a foreign land.”
“A person against a country.” etc….

Yet the word alien is an unusually exact legal term, far more exact
than words like sovereignty, independence, national honor, rights,
defense, aggression, imperialism, capitalism, socialism, about which
we so readily take sides “for” or “against.”


The power to dissociate superficial analogies, attend to differences
and appreciate variety is lucidity of mind. It is a relative faculty.
Yet the differences in lucidity are extensive, say as between a newly
born infant and a botanist examining a flower. To the infant there is
precious little difference between his own toes, his father’s watch,
the lamp on the table, the moon in the sky, and a nice bright yellow
edition of Guy de Maupassant. To many a member of the Union League
Club there is no remarkable difference between a Democrat, a
Socialist, an anarchist, and a burglar, while to a highly
sophisticated anarchist there is a whole universe of difference
between Bakunin, Tolstoi, and Kropotkin. These examples show how
difficult it might be to secure a sound public opinion about de
Maupassant among babies, or about Democrats in the Union League Club.

A man who merely rides in other people’s automobiles may not rise to
finer discrimination than between a Ford, a taxicab, and an
automobile. But let that same man own a car and drive it, let him, as
the psychoanalysts would say, project his libido upon automobiles, and
he will describe a difference in carburetors by looking at the rear
end of a car a city block away. That is why it is often such a relief
when the talk turns from “general topics” to a man’s own hobby. It is
like turning from the landscape in the parlor to the ploughed field
outdoors. It is a return to the three dimensional world, after a
sojourn in the painter’s portrayal of his own emotional response to
his own inattentive memory of what he imagines he ought to have seen.

We easily identify, says Ferenczi, two only partially similar things:
[Footnote: Internat. Zeitschr, f. Arztl. Psychoanalyse, 1913.
Translated and republished by Dr. Ernest Jones in S. Ferenczi,
_Contributions to Psychoanalysis_, Ch. VIII, _Stages in the
Development of the Sense of Reality_.] the child more easily than
the adult, the primitive or arrested mind more readily than the
mature. As it first appears in the child, consciousness seems to be an
unmanageable mixture of sensations. The child has no sense of time,
and almost none of space, it reaches for the chandelier with the same
confidence that it reaches for its mother’s breast, and at first with
almost the same expectation. Only very gradually does function define
itself. To complete inexperience this is a coherent and
undifferentiated world, in which, as someone has said of a school of
philosophers, all facts are born free and equal. Those facts which
belong together in the world have not yet been separated from those
which happen to lie side by side in the stream of consciousness.

At first, says Ferenczi, the baby gets some of the things it wants by
crying for them. This is “the period of magical hallucinatory
omnipotence.” In its second phase the child points to the things it
wants, and they are given to it. “Omnipotence by the help of magic
gestures.” Later, the child learns to talk, asks for what it wishes,
and is partially successful. “The period of magic thoughts and magic
words.” Each phase may persist for certain situations, though overlaid
and only visible at times, as for example, in the little harmless
superstitions from which few of us are wholly free. In each phase,
partial success tends to confirm that way of acting, while failure
tends to stimulate the development of another. Many individuals,
parties, and even nations, rarely appear to transcend the magical
organization of experience. But in the more advanced sections of the
most advanced peoples, trial and error after repeated failure has led
to the invention of a new principle. The moon, they learn, is not
moved by baying at it. Crops are not raised from the soil by spring
festivals or Republican majorities, but by sunlight, moisture, seeds,
fertilizer, and cultivation. [Footnote: Ferenczi, being a pathologist,
does not describe this maturer period where experience is organized as
equations, the phase of realism on the basis of science.]

Allowing for the purely schematic value of Ferenczi’s categories of
response, the quality which we note as critical is the power to
discriminate among crude perceptions and vague analogies. This power
has been studied under laboratory conditions. [Footnote: See, for
example, Diagnostische Assoziation Studien, conducted at the
Psychiatric University Clinic in Zurich under the direction of Dr. C.
G. Jung. These tests were carried on principally under the so-called
Krapelin-Aschaffenburg classification. They show reaction time,
classify response to the stimulant word as inner, outer, and clang,
show separate results for the first and second hundred words, for
reaction time and reaction quality when the subject is distracted by
holding an idea in mind, or when he replies while beating time with a
metronome. Some of the results are summarized in Jung, _Analytical
Psychology_, Ch. II, transl. by Dr. Constance E. Long.] The Zurich
Association Studies indicate clearly that slight mental fatigue, an
inner disturbance of attention or an external distraction, tend to
“flatten” the quality of the response. An example of the very “flat”
type is the clang association (cat-hat), a reaction to the sound and
not to the sense of the stimulant word. One test, for example, shows a
9% increase of clang in the second series of a hundred reactions. Now
the clang is almost a repetition, a very primitive form of analogy.


If the comparatively simple conditions of a laboratory can so readily
flatten out discrimination, what must be the effect of city life? In
the laboratory the fatigue is slight enough, the distraction rather
trivial. Both are balanced in measure by the subject’s interest and
self-consciousness. Yet if the beat of a metronome will depress
intelligence, what do eight or twelve hours of noise, odor, and heat
in a factory, or day upon day among chattering typewriters and
telephone bells and slamming doors, do to the political judgments
formed on the basis of newspapers read in street-cars and subways? Can
anything be heard in the hubbub that does not shriek, or be seen in
the general glare that does not flash like an electric sign? The life
of the city dweller lacks solitude, silence, ease. The nights are
noisy and ablaze. The people of a big city are assaulted by incessant
sound, now violent and jagged, now falling into unfinished rhythms,
but endless and remorseless. Under modern industrialism thought goes
on in a bath of noise. If its discriminations are often flat and
foolish, here at least is some small part of the reason. The sovereign
people determines life and death and happiness under conditions where
experience and experiment alike show thought to be most difficult.
“The intolerable burden of thought” is a burden when the conditions
make it burdensome. It is no burden when the conditions are favorable.
It is as exhilarating to think as it is to dance, and just as natural.

Every man whose business it is to think knows that he must for part of
the day create about himself a pool of silence. But in that
helter-skelter which we flatter by the name of civilization, the
citizen performs the perilous business of government under the worst
possible conditions. A faint recognition of this truth inspires the
movement for a shorter work day, for longer vacations, for light, air,
order, sunlight and dignity in factories and offices. But if the
intellectual quality of our life is to be improved that is only the
merest beginning. So long as so many jobs are an endless and, for the
worker, an aimless routine, a kind of automatism using one set of
muscles in one monotonous pattern, his whole life will tend towards an
automatism in which nothing is particularly to be distinguished from
anything else unless it is announced with a thunderclap. So long as he
is physically imprisoned in crowds by day and even by night his
attention will flicker and relax. It will not hold fast and define
clearly where he is the victim of all sorts of pother, in a home which
needs to be ventilated of its welter of drudgery, shrieking children,
raucous assertions, indigestible food, bad air, and suffocating

Occasionally perhaps we enter a building which is composed and
spacious; we go to a theatre where modern stagecraft has cut away
distraction, or go to sea, or into a quiet place, and we remember how
cluttered, how capricious, how superfluous and clamorous is the
ordinary urban life of our time. We learn to understand why our addled
minds seize so little with precision, why they are caught up and
tossed about in a kind of tarantella by headlines and catch-words, why
so often they cannot tell things apart or discern identity in apparent


But this external disorder is complicated further by internal.
Experiment shows that the speed, the accuracy, and the intellectual
quality of association is deranged by what we are taught to call
emotional conflicts. Measured in fifths of a second, a series of a
hundred stimuli containing both neutral and hot words may show a
variation as between 5 and 32 or even a total failure to respond at
all. [Footnote: Jung, _Clark Lectures_.] Obviously our public
opinion is in intermittent contact with complexes of all sorts; with
ambition and economic interest, personal animosity, racial prejudice,
class feeling and what not. They distort our reading, our thinking,
our talking and our behavior in a great variety of ways.

And finally since opinions do not stop at the normal members of
society, since for the purposes of an election, a propaganda, a
following, numbers constitute power, the quality of attention is still
further depressed. The mass of absolutely illiterate, of
feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated
individuals, is very considerable, much more considerable there is
reason to think than we generally suppose. Thus a wide popular appeal
is circulated among persons who are mentally children or barbarians,
people whose lives are a morass of entanglements, people whose
vitality is exhausted, shut-in people, and people whose experience has
comprehended no factor in the problem under discussion. The stream of
public opinion is stopped by them in little eddies of misunderstanding,
where it is discolored with prejudice and far fetched analogy.

A “broad appeal” takes account of the quality of association, and is
made to those susceptibilities which are widely distributed. A
“narrow” or a “special” appeal is one made to those susceptibilities
which are uncommon. But the same individual may respond with very
different quality to different stimuli, or to the same stimuli at
different times. Human susceptibilities are like an alpine country.
There are isolated peaks, there are extensive but separated plateaus,
and there are deeper strata which are quite continuous for nearly all
mankind. Thus the individuals whose susceptibilities reach the
rarefied atmosphere of those peaks where there exists an exquisitive
difference between Frege and Peano, or between Sassetta’s earlier and
later periods, may be good stanch Republicans at another level of
appeal, and when they are starving and afraid, indistinguishable from
any other starving and frightened person. No wonder that the magazines
with the large circulations prefer the face of a pretty girl to any
other trade mark, a face, pretty enough to be alluring, but innocent
enough to be acceptable. For the “psychic level” on which the stimulus
acts determines whether the public is to be potentially a large or a
small one.


Thus the environment with which our public opinions deal is refracted
in many ways, by censorship and privacy at the source, by physical and
social barriers at the other end, by scanty attention, by the poverty
of language, by distraction, by unconscious constellations of feeling,
by wear and tear, violence, monotony. These limitations upon our
access to that environment combine with the obscurity and complexity
of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception,
to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas, and to deprive
us of adequate checks upon those who consciously strive to mislead.