Your Beliefs About Public Opinion Are All Wrong

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
5 min readJun 20, 2022
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Data is most exciting when it proves you wrong. All of us have intuitions and expectations about how society is structured and how it’s changing. Sometimes, the actual numbers support those perspectives, but occasionally, they upend our world view.

Expectations are particularly influential when it comes to public opinion. Our beliefs and expectations about what other people think determine how we make decisions, how we feel in our communities, and even how we vote in elections. If we have false beliefs about how public opinion is changing on issues like racism, climate change, and gun control, we end up making political choices that are poorly aligned with our priorities.

That’s why polling data is so important. If you believe that atheism and climate change sympathies have been growing, or that gun advocacy and pro-immigration sentiments have been declining, it may be time to check the numbers. One newly published study has taken a long, hard look at how our expectations of public opinion match up with reality.

Comic from Light Roast Comics

Unexpected truths about public opinion

In a study published in March 2022, researchers asked ~1000 Americans to estimate public opinion on various issues. Most questions were related to politics such as “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” and “Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles?”. But questions spanned a range of topics, touching on issues such as abortion, religion, homosexuality, and corporal punishment.

For each question, people estimated how much of the general population would be in favor of a political position at two different time periods: a past year from several decades ago and a recent year after 2010.

The researchers calculated how much people believed public opinion had changed over time, and then compared those beliefs to what really happened according to national polls from organizations such as Gallup and Pew Research Center. They categorized people’s estimates as…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: