Simple Polling Experiment Illustrates Effect of Priming on Public Opinion

The polling organization YouGov designed a simple experiment to illustrate the effect of priming on respondents' attitudes about possible US involvement in Russia's dispute with Ukraine.  Priming is an "implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus. [...] The effects of priming can be very salient and long lasting" and affect the decision-making process.  In this particular case, YouGov wanted to see whether comparing Vladimir Putin's actions in Crimea today to Hitler's in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 would change respondents' opinions about US involvement in this international crisis.

For this experiment, half of the sample was asked standard opinion questions:  "Do you think the U.S. should get involved in Russia's dispute with Ukraine?" followed by: "In dealing with the Ukraine crisis, which of the following things do you think the US should do?" (hold diplomatic negotiations with Russia, impose economic sanctions, provide economic aid, and some military options).

The other half of the sample was first asked: "Do you think Vladimir Putin's actions in Crimea today are similar to what Hitler did in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938?" and "Would you consider it 'appeasement' for the U.S. and other western democracies not to take strong action to defend Ukraine?".  Then respondents were asked the standard questions about US involvement in Ukraine.

As Douglas Rivers of YouGov explains,

  • "Only 21% of those asked in the conventional way favored U.S. involvement in the Ukraine. When this question was preceded by the questions about appeasement and comparing Putin to Hitler, support for U.S. involvement rose to 29%. It didn't change the overall result -- a majority of Americans still oppose getting involved in the Ukraine even after the parallel to 1938 is mentioned -- but it does make a difference of about 8%."
  • The comparison with Hitler barely raised the low levels of support for military action, but mentioning appeasement increased support for economic sanctions and financial aid, and diminished support for negotiations somewhat.

Rivers concludes: "We didn't say that Putin's tactics were like Hitler's or that Obama was an appeaser. But merely asking such questions is enough to move public opinion as it is conventionally measured."

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Frederique Laubepin

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