I have been a regular participant in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) for many years. Their website describes NZAVS as a
20-year longitudinal national study of social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of more than 60,000 New Zealanders. The study is broad-ranging and includes researchers from a number of New Zealand universities, including the University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Canterbury, the University of Otago, and Massey University. The NZAVS extends our understanding of how New Zealanders’ life circumstances, attitudes, values, and beliefs change over time. The study is university-based, not-for-profit and independent of political or corporate funding.
A recent NZAVS newsletter included the headline “Political leaders can change our opinions” which I found intriguing. My first thought was that politicians typically try to determine the opinions of potential voters, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand, where the differences between the centre right and centre left are very small and there are very few issues that polarise public opinion.
But then I thought about Trump and wondered how much his opinions and those of his supporters influence each other. Research shows that the positions taken by political leaders and political parties can have an important impact on peoples’ preferences, even on issues that are supposed to reflect personal preferences. The newsletter reports:
How much can our own attitudes be affected by our political leaders?
In 2015, then-leaders of National and Labour publicly expressed their personal opinions on whether the New Zealand flag should be changed, with John Key (National) arguing New Zealanders should choose a new flag, and Andrew Little (Labour) arguing New Zealanders should keep the current flag. We measured public support for changing the flag both before and after these opinions were published in the media.
Overall, 30.5% of National party supporters and 27.5% of Labour party supporters changed their original opinion to match their party leaders. This research provides a rare real-time example of politicians’ influence on public opinion.
Although the research was conducted only on Kiwis, I wonder to what degree the same effect occurs in other countries. Anyone care to comment?
Just for the record, I’ve wanted a flag change since before I was old enough to vote, and I still hold that opinion. If Australia changes their’s before we do, then I might consider it a less pressing issue, but one still worth pursuing.