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A Simple Theory of the Survey Response: Answering Questions versus Revealing Preferences

John Zaller and Stanley Feldman
American Journal of Political Science
Vol. 36, No. 3 (Aug., 1992), pp. 579-616
DOI: 10.2307/2111583
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2111583
Page Count: 38
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A Simple Theory of the Survey Response: Answering Questions versus Revealing Preferences
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Abstract

Opinion research is beset by two major types of "artifactual" variance: huge amounts of overtime response instability and the common tendency for seemingly trivial changes in questionnaire form to affect the expression of attitudes. We propose a simple model that converts this anomalous "error variance" into sources of substantive insight into the nature of public opinion. The model abandons the conventional but implausible notion that most people possess opinions at the level of specificity of typical survey items--and instead assumes that most people are internally conflicted over most political issues--and that most respond to survey questions on the basis of whatever ideas are at the top of their heads at the moment of answering. Numerous empirical regularities are shown to be consistent with these assumptions.

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