Study Finds Many Americans Don’t Say What They Actually Think

Ryan Fan

On the issue of affirmative action, I was disheartened and dismayed by the recent Supreme Court ruling as a pro-affirmative action Asian.

But I am seeing a disconnect between what a lot of my Asian peers say they believe in public versus in private. No one person’s views can be boiled down to a simple poll question, but there is a substantial disconnect between the support for the recent affirmative action ruling by the Supreme Court on Asian-related subreddits and anonymous forums, versus what many purport to believe in public.

There are a lot of different sources of sampling bias possible — people who post on anonymous forums and comment threads are more likely to have less socially desirable views that anonymity emboldens, while people who speak out in public are more vocal and outspoken about their views in the public arena. It doesn’t help that a lot of different polls yield very different results on this particular issue depending on how the question is asked. The most evident disconnect is the differing results on the following two questions from the Pew Research Center:

  • 53% of Asian adults who heard of the phrase “affirmative action” thought it was a good thing
  • But only 21% of Asian adults in the same poll said colleges should consider race and ethnicity in college admissions. 76% said race should not be considered.

The implication is that issue polling as a whole isn’t very reliable, and that how the question is asked has a huge impact on responses.

To me, however, that wasn’t a very satisfying answer, especially in light of polling failing to capture the extent of Donald Trump’s support in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles.

Since Trump has come into the fray, I’ve come to know a few Trump supporters. They most certainly aren’t in the majority of my friends, but since we occupy pretty liberal circles in academia and in general, most of them have one thing in common: they are not very open about having actually voted for Trump. I had to get to know them really well to get a true sense of their politics and beliefs, because (for good reason), publicly announcing that you’re a Trump supporter on a college campus leads to significant social repercussions.

And so since the Trump era, I have felt a growing disconnect between what people say they think in public versus what they actually think in private due to a culture of censorship.

In 2022, an independent think tank, Populace, published a study highlighting this disparity and disconnect between what people said they believed in public and what they actually believed. The results tackled some of the most sensitive and polarizing social issues of the day, particularly around education.

The researchers provided the respondents with a mix of polling questions or other questions using experimental methods or item-count methods. This allowed them to feel a greater sense of anonymity when answering questions, which allowed them to be more honest about what they really thought.

Not every issue saw a huge disparity between private and public opinion, but many did. Here are a few:

  • On the question of “public schools focus too much on racism in the U.S.,” a common gripe of the right and the likes of Ron DeSantis and the anti-critical race theory crowd (although the framing of this question yields vastly different results than one that asked “should schools be allowed to teach critical race theory?”), 43% of people said they “publicly agreed” versus 33% of people who “privately agreed.”
  • 59% of people publicly agreed that mask-wearing was effective to stop COVID-19. Only 47% of people privately agreed.
  • 63% of people publicly agreed discussing gender identity is inappropriate for K-3 children. Only 53% of people privately agreed.
  • 64% of Republicans said they publicly supported the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Only 51% privately supported the decision.
  • 67% of people said they publicly agreed that abortion should be a decision only left to a woman and her doctor. Only 58% of people privately agreed.

Takeaways

At the end of the day, what this study shows is people are more likely to self-censor themselves around their peers, people on their side of the ideological aisle, or people they surround themselves with.

Let’s be real: there are some people on your own side where you can completely lose their respect or friendship by taking the “wrong” position. A liberal like myself doesn’t care what a Trump supporter thinks of my opinions because I don’t feel judged or held accountable by that side: I’m accountable to my side.

So yes, I have some opinions that I’ve learned the hard way not to express in public. Most people don’t care about your opinion, whether you express them or not. But some people really do care and will try to thought police you to enforce ideological conformity and as a virtue signal of their elite status within your political group.

Both sides have grown increasingly rigid and intolerant of dissent and independent, nuanced positions on issues, a trend accelerated by the explosion of social media. So we would be hopelessly naive and flat-out wrong to say that there aren’t significant political pressures from both sides of the political aisle to conform and bend to the position your side demands.

Sometimes it depends on what setting and environment you’re in that the self-censorship comes in. It’s just natural to not want to be the person telling everyone what they don’t want to hear, especially if doing so leads to significant social repercussions. If I’m around a lot of Asians who hate affirmative action, I’ll be honest about my pro-affirmative action views, but I won’t necessarily be super outspoken about them unless prompted. When I was super gung-ho about Bernie, I didn’t realize how much more moderate some of the people I talked to about democratic socialism were until years later. They just didn’t feel like they could speak out against the Bernie crowd except in private at the time.

Some people are very open to thought-provoking, nuanced discussions that really make you see things from a different perspective. But a very vocal minority do not. Plus, if you’re trying to advance a certain cause, obviously you want people to feel that pressure, too.

We all feel this pressure to some degree. But some people will flat out not be truthful about their beliefs to conform to the beliefs of the group. You can call them cowards and disingenuous, but you can’t necessarily blame them for it because there is no incentive to dissent publicly, ruin your reputation, and maybe even put your career at risk.

The implication of the Populace study is that many Democrats and Republicans are more moderate and have more nuanced views than they seem, at least a certain segment in the middle that doesn’t think they can speak out against their own side. There’s a subset of Republicans who think Ron DeSantis and their side have gone too far in the book banning and anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ legislation and rhetoric, but feel that they can’t say it publicly. There’s a subset of Democrats who are more moderate and on popular Democratic stances on abortion and mask-wearing, but don’t feel comfortable saying that privately.

The implication is also that the country is less polarized than advertised, according to Todd Rose, the president of Populace. Interestingly, Hispanic and independent voters were most likely to publicly misrepresent their private views — both groups had double-digit gaps on 14 out of 25 topics.

One important, but underappreciated, consequence of a culture of censorship is that it can lead individuals not only to self silence, but also publicly misrepresent their own private views (what scholars call preference falsification,” Populace says.

But are we really not as polarized as advertised if people live in this constant fear of the extremes and extremes on their own side? If what’s said in public as statements representative of a political aisle isn’t what so many in that aisle actually think, isn’t there an incredibly polarized environment, even if some individual people aren’t that polarized?

The study as a whole found that privately, Biden and Trump voters have a lot more in common in terms of political priorities and values than they said publicly, including on issues like healthcare, a commitment to free speech and privacy, and ensuring equal treatment for all. This isn’t the case for all issues, to say the least, but it’s more than expected.

This disconnect is also important because the next generation has a certain image of America’s polarization that is represented by national headlines from different outlets and what people are willing to say in public. Younger people are more impressionable. If more moderate members of each party don’t feel the freedom to say what they actually think, then we’re on a crash course for the actual private opinions of the next generation, according to Rose.

To be honest, I don’t think Populace asked people the most divisive and sensitive questions that would have likely yielded an even bigger gap between private and public opinion. They didn’t ask Republicans what they actually thought on whether the 2020 election was stolen, for example.

However, the biggest silver lining to take is that private opinions may be a lot more persuasive into how a voter actually votes, given that we have secret ballots and people don’t need to tell others how they voted if they don’t want to. That’s a big if, but perhaps this sentiment that a huge subset of people aren’t revealing what they really think or feel this pressure to misstate their views has huge implications if it doesn’t translate to the ballot box.

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Believer, Baltimore City IEP Chair, and 2:39 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire"

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