Analyzing Changes in Public Opinion

Emory S. Bogardus
University of Southern California

CHANGES in public opinion may be discovered by analyzing changes in personal opinion. The 110 persons who furnished the data for the experiments in measuring social distances [1] were asked to select front the list of races (39 in all) used in the social distance experiments, (a) the races toward which they now have a more friendly feeling than they had ten years ago, and (b) the races toward which they now have a less friendly feeling than formerly. They were also asked to write out. at length a description, not an. exposition, of the circumstances whereby (a) they-now possess a more favorable feeling titan they once did toward some one race, and (b) whereby they now have an increased aversion for some race.

Table I Changes in Racial Opinions (In ten years, 110 persons)
Races Closer to   Farther
away from
  No mention
Armenians 23   9   79
Bulgarians 1   9   108
Canadians 4   1   95
Chinese 19   10   81
Czecho-Slovaks 7   1   102
Danes 7   0   103
Dutch 5   0   105
English 3   3   104
Filipinos 4   2   104


Table I, continued
Races Closer to   Farther
away from
  No mention
French 15       88
French-Canadian 1   1   108
Finns 9   1   100
Germans 6   34   70
Greeks 8   10   92
Hindus 3   11   96
Hungarians 1   2   107
Indians (American) 6   1   103
Irish 2   2   106
Italians 8   6   96
Japanese 23   19   68
Jew-German 4   16   90
Jew-Russian 3   16   91
Koreans 2   2   106
Mexicans 15   22   73
Mulattoes 1   1   108
Negroes it   9   90
Norwegians 9   0   101
Portuguese 1   2   107
Poles 5   3   102
Roumanians 1   1   108
Russians 2   1   97
Serbo-Croatians 4   3   104
Scotch 0   0   108
Scotch-Irish 1   0   109
Spanish 2   3   105
Syrians 2   2   106
Swedish 11   1   103
Turks 1   16   93
Welsh     0   109


The figures in column 3 of Table I are unexpectedly large. The fact that 79 of the 110 persons do not mention, for, example, the Armenian as a race toward which they. have been drawn or from which they have turned, is surprising when it is considered that the 110 participants are all persons of relatively many contacts. Interviewing brings out the reasons.

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I I have never known members of the race and do not have any personal acquaintance in it. My feeling is neutral.

2. No members of the races in question have ever crossed my path. I am neither favorable or unfavorable to them — just do not know them, that's all.

In addition to ignorance due to lack of contacts, even by persons of wide experience and social contacts, there are those who have maintained, throughout the years, a great friendliness for sonic races, and for others, a marked aversion; no change in opinion has occurred.

3. The Irish is my own race and of course I have always liked them and always shall.

4. I am English and have always admired the Canadians. They are English anyway.

5. My grandfather taught me to hate the Poles and I (a Jew) can never forget their brutal murder of my father. I have always hated then with an undying hatred and I don't see how it can ever change, not until memory grows dim.

6. We are century, long enemies of the Turks. Their oppressions have always been unbearable. I (Armenian) never see one even in Christian America but that I shudder from head to loot and start to run.

Taken all together, the reasons for no change in opinion by some persons toward sonic races show no habitual opinions formed at all, because of no personal contacts, or else fixed and unchanged habits grounded in either feelings of kinship and sympathy, or else of aversion arising out of persona.) experience and traditional teaching.


Of the races toward which a favorable change in opinion has been encountered, personal contacts arousing a fellow-feeling have been experienced.

7. Personal contacts, sympathetic, toward the Mexican, Up to recently I was greatly prejudiced against the Mexican. I could not tolerate him. Living in his unsanitary adobe house in ignorance.

(375) and unprogressiveness I could not see a bit of worth in him. To me it seemed as if he didn't care whether he bettered his conditions, whether he progressed. All his thoughts seemed to drift back to Mexico giving little attention or credit to the United States.

After teaching for a year, where I came in contact with Mexican children, in my room, on the playground, and finally their parents. I changed my mind, some of my prejudices disappeared, I began to sympathize with them. I found the Mexican mother had very little opportunity to learn sanitary conditions of her home, care of her children, but was more than willing to be shown. She was eager to keep her children in school and greatly agitated if they refused to come.

8. Personal contacts, sympathetic, toward the Jew. I can remember when we, as., a family, were most bitter in our denunciations of Jews. Then, to our consternation, my sister married a Jew and we had to associate with them for her sake. The man she married was one of a large family, three brothers and three sisters who were all married and had families of their own. In all six families there is only one person who betrays any characteristics popularly attributed to the Jews as racial traits. This man is the husband of one of the sisters, is fond of making money and also of saving it, but no more so than certain of my non-Jewish friends. This same member of the family is the only loud talker in all the six families and he Lever says anything which is coarse or rude. During many visits among the various families, I have received most hospitable treatment, have found the home life lovely, refined, cultured - modulated voices, musical training, moderate expenditure, sincerity rather than ostentation and superficiality. I would say that generosity rather than parsimoniousness is a prevailing characteristic. The idea of "Jewing anyone down" is abhorrent to all the members of the six families, excepting the one brother-in-law already mentioned, and he is criticized by the others.

9. Personal contacts, sympathetic, toward the Japanese. Before I came to California I knew nothing about the Japanese and naturally was not interested. Now, I don't know much more, but I met a Japanese girl, who has had a very hard time to adjust herself to her environment, because of the treatment she and members of her race received. In my work in the evening school here in Los Angeles, I have had a number of Japanese people in my lasses. Always they

( 376) are very appreciative and courteous and they usually learn quickly. My experiences with the Japanese have always been pleasant. Consequently I am more sympathetic when they are, treated so harshly by the United States than I would be otherwise.

Sometimes there are more definite evidences than at other tines of a rational element inn the personal sympathetic experiences. The response has not been chiefly automatic, but has contained reflective elements.

10. Personal contacts, sympathetic-rational, toward the Spanish, Not until about four years ago when I came to California did my early idea and feeling toward the Spanish race change. I have never been especially interested in the old California Missions, but from them. I learned something about the constructive things that the Spanish have done. Then too, in California, one comes in contact with more, people of Spanish descent. than he does in the east. As a whole I've found them congenial, bright, and sincere,

11. Personal contacts, sympathetic-rational, toward the Japanese. Even in fiction the Japanese are pictured as the treacherous villain, but talking with an educated Japanese, or living near one and taking notice of the effort they are putting forth to overcome their natural traits seems to make me feel that they should be given a chance. Inherited tendency is stronger in my opinion than social environment and the lives the Japanese have lived for generations cannot be forgotten and a new being reared because he lives in America. The moral standards of the Japanese here are certainly above what they were when they first came. One quickly learns to like a Japanese child because of his quickness to learn and his attitude toward his work.

There were instances where personal contacts were few or missing and where the change to a favorable opinion carne about through second-hand contacts and more or less rationally, due to the influence of third parties, such as teachers, and to wide reading and extensive thinking.

12. Rational, social, toward the Negro (by a Southerner). The early years of my childhood were spent in Louisiana. There I heard of the Negro only as a dirty black person who was on earth simply

( 376) to work for the white man. Like others in the town I felt that anything was good' enough for the Negro and I never questioned the ethics of working the Negro as hard as he would allow us to, and .paying him a pittance for his labors. I never thought of the Negro as a human with a soul. As I analyze my attitude I think it was much like my attitude toward beasts of burden; I was never intentionally cruel to them, nor did I desire to see them suffer. But the idea that the Negroes were men and women, with emotions, desires, and instincts like those of the white people never occurred to e. It was not hatred, but thoughtlessness. That a Negro had a soul was preposterous. I thought of Heaven as being populated only by white folks.

This was the idea I received from my elders and it was one I carried with me when I came to California. Here I found conditions very different. My parents lamented the fact that we would have to sit beside Negroes on 'street cars and in theaters. My father declared he would never lower himself to the level of the "nigger" like the Californians did -he simply could not understand the attitude of the westerner to the Negro. In different places I heard the southerner criticized by the westerner for his "mistreatment" of the Negro. I was suddenly thrust into a new atmosphere and at first I did not know what to make of it, but gradually my ideas began to change to those of my associates.

One of the three things that aided my change of opinion was a United States history class in. high school. I had always heard the history of the Civil War presented front the southerner's point of view, now I was to be under a westerner. The teacher tried to present both sides fairly' and this spurred me on to study the question with an open mind. I studied exceedingly hard for the examination over this section of the book and tried to form a fair opinion on the Civil War question. My disappointment was keen when my instructor returned the paper saying, "This. is a good paper but I see you are still a true southerner."

Later I took a course in Americanization and wrote a paper on the "Achievement of the Negro in the United States." My research for this paper introduced me to the Negroes who were more than cooks and washerwomen and gardeners. I saw the Negro as one who possessed a brain equal to that of the white man.. At this time I was a member of a club that was studying the book J. W.

( 378) Thinks Black. Here I had an opportunity to see the black man with a soul, worshipping the same God that I worshipped, and my idea of Heaven changed.

The change was a gradual one which covered from four to six years. There were many indirect influences that helped me to change mm opinion, but the thing that had the greatest influence was the United States history class, the class in Americanization, and J. W. Thinks Black. In other words, the factors operating in my change of opinion were the personality of leaders and reading matter that bore on the subject. These two things, it seems to me, are the greatest factors in the change of public opinion.


The changes of opinion from neutral to unfavorable, or favorable to unfavorable, usually occur on the basis of a few personal experiences, where the feelings, not of sympathy, but of disgust or fear, are aroused. The reactions are more or less automatic, and deep-seated, being exceedingly difficult, as a rule, to overcome.

13. Personal contacts, disgust, away from the Italian. My feeling toward the Italian is more distant than it would have been four years ago. My attitude and estimation of them may not be just, but actual experience has caused this attitude.

For four years I taught in a district where the Italian element was plentiful. This district lay near the Union Railroad station, so that many, of the Italians we got were fresh from abroad. Often they did not know a word of English and very seldom could the parents speak, read, or write English.

Of course our problem would naturally be difficult. But after trying to teach American customs and habits of living, which were invariably more sanitary than theirs; after giving instructions through a school nurse, through parent-teachers' association, and night schools, we found these people would not try to adopt our ways.

14. Personal contacts, disgust and fear, away from the Mexican. As a small child I had no serious dislike for Mexicans. They went to the same school I did. I played with them and argued with them. I was never afraid of them, in fact they were the same as a white person in my estimation.

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Our attendance problem was difficult too. The Italian will educate his son willingly, but his daughter has no particular, need of a very high grade of education. She will marry at an early age and why should she go to school any length of time?

We often found the Italian children working on market when school was in session. We found them eating from the garbage cans of the market. Their homes were in the worst of dens. Any shack was good enough.

However, since I have taken greater notice of Mexicans, their traits, habits, customs, etc., my ideas have become decidedly changed. Living near the border of Arizona and Mexico, I have had good chances to see the Mexicans living their customary life. In their homes, the lower classes are the filthiest, dirtiest, most slovenly people I have ever seen, or hope to see. Naturally, coming from such homes they are horribly displeasing to look upon, and are low mentally and morally as well. Because of this I have developed a fear of them. They are not a race that I trust very much.

Other instances of changes of increasing aversion bring in the rational element more definitely than in those already noted, although feelings of disgust, fear, or both may still predominate. The primary factors are often traditions, myths, past propaganda; these are often long-lived and doggedly influential. They have come through third parties who have prestige with the influenced. A part of the truth, the unpleasant part, has been emphasized, obscuring the favorable traits of a given race.

15. Propaganda, disgust, rational, away from the French-Canadian. Several years ago I should have reacted favorably toward the FrenchCanadian. This would have been due to his connection in my mind with romance and adventure in the early days of our country when the trapper and fur-trader were likely to be of that race. Longfellow with his "Evangeline" helped to strengthen this childhood impression.

But during the war, the papers contained frequent accounts of the refusal of the French in Canada to cooperate with the Canadian government in sending men to fight with the Allies, and their colonies were always represented as holding Canada back educationally.

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This picture, repeated. frequently, of an unassimilated group has prejudiced my mind against the French-Canadian.

Thrilling north-woods movies or the fact that the most attractive pupil I ever had was a French-Canadian do not remove that dislike from my mind.

16. Tradition, personal experience, distrust, away from the French. The World War has been the cause of my change of feeling for the French. I have heard so many reports from those who were in France during the war that have led me to believe that the standard of morality is very low there. Those I have met since the war seem to be so shallow and. unreliable.


The rôle of a few personal experiences in changing one's opinion overshadows all other factors. But the question still remains, why does personal contact sometimes lead to a favorable and again to an unfavorable opinion? Why is fellow-feeling sometimes aroused„ and again, disgust or fear? The training of the person experiencing the change in opinion is evidently of prime importance. If one is accustomed to filth, then filth is not likely to arouse feelings of disgust; but if one bewell trained in health matters, then filth is likely to arouse disgust. The reactions of fear and disgusting mean, of course, that one's fundamental wish for security has been stimulated.

The attitude of the immigrant is also important, for if he has developed the habit of suspiciousness, subtleness, trickery, lying, as conditions of survival to which he has been accustomed, he will arouse distrust and disgust in this country. If, on the other-hand, he comes from a social and political environment where frankness, open-mindedness, fair play, has been stimulated, he will display these attributes here and arouse sympathetic responses.

To us the aliens who are self--conscious and reserved are

( 381) suspected. On the other hand, they are often self-conscious and reserved because they are alien and different.[2] If the immigrant is more vivacious than we are, he arouses our contempt, If he be more taciturn and unmovable Le stimulates fear in us. To the degree that he is a pure immigrant, he is different, and yet the greater the differences the more unfavorable an opinion we are likely to have of him.

Another fact disclosed by the original personal data is that a change from an unfavorable to a favorable opinion usually takes place by a prolonged process. Opinion is changed by slight and difficult steps. In the change from favorable to unfavorable, however, a single experience may be sufficient, "aided by a few abetting circumstances and experiences." Moreover, the arousal of disgusts and fears makes a more uneradicable impression than the arousal of fellow feelings.

Changes in public opinion seem to operate similarly. It takes many proofs and a long time element to change public opinion from an unfavorable to a favorable basis, while a few instances, perhaps no more than one, will shift public opinion into unfavorable reactions of a relatively lasting nature. These few instances, looming large in one's personal life, or played up in the newspapers, blind one to the thousand and one favorable traits of the given race.,


  1. Jour. of Applied Sociology, March-April, 1925, pp. 299-308.

  2. See R. E. Park, Correspondence Course, Education 348a, Univ. of Calif., assignment 2, p. 4.

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