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18 July 2023

Study highlights 'considerable obstacles' to changing public opinion

Campaigns run by interest groups face “considerable obstacles” when attempting to change the minds of citizens but could be effective at changing intended behaviours, according to new research.


A study involving more than 3,500 citizens found that especially fact-based information from a single, authoritative source could be effective at prompting small changes in intended consumer behaviour but was ineffective when it came to changing opinions.

The study was carried out by Professor Anne Rasmussen, of King’s College London, and Dr Wiebke Marie Junk, from the University of Copenhagen, and published in the journal West European Politics.

Prof Rasmussen, from the Department of Political Economy at Kings, said: “Our findings showed that interest groups face considerable obstacles in affecting public opinion in practice. It seems that concrete, but admittedly small, changes in behavioural intent are easier to achieve than general changes in attitudes or beliefs.

“This arguably makes it less likely that public opinion is strongly rooted in the activities of interest groups. At the same time, it might mean for practitioners that campaigns with clear calls to action can be more potent than general attempts to raise issue salience.”

As part of the study, researchers worked with the leading Danish consumer group Forbrugerrådet Tænk on a campaign related to data security and ‘internet of things’ (IoT) products such as smart TVs, smart watches and other internet-connected devices.

Citizens in Denmark were surveyed about their attitudes and behaviours related to these products before being sent one of six versions of campaign material, or a placebo. The materials adopted different approaches to the issue of data security, using personal, personal-opinion based, or factual information.

Citizens were then re-contacted after having received the materials to measure any affect upon their opinion or intended behaviours.

Researchers found the different versions of the material had little affect upon the attitudes of citizens towards data security, highlighting the challenges faced by consumer groups in attempting to sway public opinion.

The research did find, however, that citizens reported being more likely to read some types of product information more closely upon their next purchase of an IoT device, suggesting that small behavioural nudges are easier to achieve.

The results also challenge existing evidence how sender and message characteristics affect the likelihood of influencing citizens. They showed that material, sent from a single source, was much more effective at changing intended behaviours than campaign material promoted by multiple groups, and that fact-based arguments had greater success than material referring to personal experiences. 


You can read the study in full here.