The impact of deliberation on participants’ opinions

One of rationales for deliberation put forward by deliberative democracy theorists is that it improves the quality of the public’s opinion.

According to Tina Nabatchi and colleagues, this view draws on ‘several decades of public opinion research that paints a picture of a rationally ignorant or uninformed public, who express meaningless doorstep opinions and non-attitudes, or form their opinions through irrational and short-sighted processes that are reinforced through homogenous networks and highly susceptible to a constant onslaught of elite manipulation tactics’. 1

Deliberative engagement is therefore offered up as a solution to this; the process of delving into a topic and discussing opinions with others is thought to make those opinions more informed, consistent and durable.

Knowledge gain and opinion change through deliberation

There is good evidence to suggest that participants do learn information from deliberative engagement, including information that is contrary to their opinions, and change their opinions in line with this new information. 2  A good deal of supporting evidence for this has been provided from analyses of Deliberative Poll events. James Fishkin, for example, reports evidence of significant change in policy attitudes across fifty-eight indices in nine national Deliberative Polls, with 72% showing significant change between participants’ answers on first contact and after the deliberation. 3

For example, a Deliberative Poll held in Australia at the time of a constitutional referendum on whether the country should become a republic resulted in significant knowledge gains among participants, which was found to drive opinion change. It also resulted in the favouring of an option (for indirect elections of a president) that had not initially been appealing to the participants 3

In Denmark, a deliberative poll held in 2000 on whether the country should join the Euro found that support moved from 45% before to 56% after the deliberation, while opposition moved from 37% to 43%.  During the deliberation, it was found that at least 20% of participants changed their minds more than once, and that their knowledge significantly increased, beyond that of the general public who gained some knowledge through the referendum campaigns. Importantly, this increased knowledge included that of the arguments that they disagreed with, as well as those they agreed with. A follow up survey three months following the event found that this knowledge had lasted. 3 In a study of this case, Andersen and Hansen found that:

Deliberation and information increased the participants’ ability to form opinions, and many participants changed their views after engaging in the deliberative processes. The participants were capable of forming a reasoned opinion on a complex issue such as the single currency. Their knowledge about the issue, as well as their capabilities to engage in political debates, increased. In this sense, deliberation created “better” citizens based on a normative judgment of active, informed and participating citizens. 4

While there is evidence that participating in a deliberation can change the opinions of citizens, there is some disagreement over the exact mechanism that brings about this change of opinion. Some have linked it to the receipt of information and internal deliberation, 5  whereas others have shown that the actual deliberation with other citizens is the cause of much of the opinion change. 6

Either way, and notwithstanding possible issues of cognitive bias and social dynamics (see section 3), there is good evidence that participants in a deliberation can tackle complex policy issues and will shift their opinions based on the knowledge they gain.

Strengthened views and deliberation

Though there is often a presumption that opinion change is a positive outcome of deliberation – as it suggests that a citizen has critically engaged with an issue – this is of course not necessarily the case. A study of a citizens’ panel for health goal priority setting found that increased levels of deliberation made participants views more amenable to change in some cases, but made them more entrenched in others. 7

On the one hand, opinion change may result from social pressures to conform, rather than the strength of alternative arguments. But on the other hand, as Fishkin highlights, deliberation may also strengthen a pre-existing view or policy preference:

‘If the public thinks X should be done, but has not thought about the issue much, has not tested its views in comparison with alternative policies and reasons for them, then there is an issue about how seriously, from a standpoint of normative legitimacy, one should take those views. There is a kind of deliberative discount. It does not disqualify the opinions. After all, these are the views that people actually have. But those views should be viewed within the category of “top of the head” opinion, of impressions of sound bites and headlines that are incompletely rationalised. They reflect very little thought and little consideration of opposing possibilities. On the other hand, if those views survive a serious deliberation unchanged, then the deliberative discount should be lifted. Those views have been tested in a context of opposing arguments with good information. Hence, regardless of change, the conclusions at the end of a well-constituted Deliberative Poll represent the public’s considered judgements’ 3

Therefore, even if citizens do not change their views during deliberation, the fact that these opinions have survived greater scrutiny through a dialogue process means that the opinions should be taken more seriously both by outsiders and by citizens themselves. Citizens are more likely to promote and defend their views; and decision-makers should respect these opinions as sincerely held and systematically thought through.

  • 1Nabatchi, et al., 2012, Democracy in Motion
  • 2Luskin et al., 2002, Considered opinions; Barabas, 2004, How Deliberation Affects Policy Opinions; Fishkin, 2009, When the people speak
  • 3 a b c d Fishkin, 2009, When the people speak
  • 4Andersen & Hansen, 2007, How deliberation makes better citizens
  • 5Goodwin & Neimeyer, 2003, When Does Deliberation Begin?
  • 6Farrar, et al., 2010, Disaggregating Deliberation’s Effects
  • 7Abelson et al., 2003, Does deliberation make a difference?