What’s the difference between opinion polling and framing research?

Quite often we’re asked: what the difference is between framing research and opinion polling. It’s a great question so I thought I’d try and capture a few of the key differences and complementarities here.

What opinion polls can tell us

Opinion polls give us good intelligence about how people feel about social issues.

Over time, tracking data can show us how attitudes vary in response to things like world events, the state of the economy, and changing demography. This patterned, longitudinal data – in particular – can provide very important indicators of what people think, feel and believe.

What framing research can tell us

Framing research, on the other hand, is designed to give insight into the mindsets that lie behind attitudes.

Mindsets are the mental shortcuts that guide our thinking without us realising it. They are our default assumptions about the world around us which shape how we think and act. Or put another way, mindsets shape our expectations about how the world works. They are enduring and widely shared across culture.

Some people call them ‘deep narratives,’ and at FrameWorks we often call them ‘cultural models’. Whatever they’re called, they are the stories, narrative, and patterns of thinking that sit beneath and inform our attitudes and opinions.

Once we understand the mindsets people hold on a social issue, we can design effective communications and influencing strategies: ensuring that we avoid triggering unproductive mindsets and tap into the productive ones that will help generate public attitudes supportive of the changes we need.

In short, rather than focussing on what people think, framing research goes deeper and tells us how and why people think as they do.

Whereas public opinion can change quickly, reacting to news cycles – with support for an issue going both up and down; shifting mindsets can take longer but also tends to lead to more lasting cultural change on an issue. And at times when mindsets are in flux, there are huge opportunities for social progress.

There’s another difference too. Opinion polling gives us a snapshot of what people think right now on an issue, but not where they could move to – their capacity for changing their thinking on an issue, and what it would take to shift it. Framing research does allow us to explore how we can shift hearts and minds. And it allows us to test different strategies to achieve this – vital when we’re seeking to build support for social progress.

Let’s take an example. Recent opinion polling data from Ipsos Mori finds that the British public splits into three groups on the question of what factors most influence people’s life chances. They find that 38 per cent of Britons are ‘individualists’: people who believe that merit and effort are the main drivers of success. While 35 per cent of us are ‘structuralists’, who believe that systemic factors (such as being born into a wealthy or poor family) are more important. The remaining 28 percent are in the middle – split between these ideas, or undecided.

Framing research might take the polling data and ask: can we frame issues in ways that help the ‘indvidualists’ see the systemic factors? We might then conduct an experimental survey to test different ways to frame an issue of inequality to determine the most efficacious way to do this. Time and again, with the right framing, we find it is possible for so-called ‘individualists’ to think like ‘structuralists’. And, quite often, it’s when we’re thinking like structuralists that we tend to support policy reform.

It’s not a competition

There will be times when opinion polling can deliver exactly the data we need. Similarly, framing research is compatible with – and complementary to – opinion polling. Mindset research can help to explain – and even predict – results from opinion data. While opinion polling can help us pick up early indications of mindsets shifting. But, of course, the only way truly to know if mindsets themselves are shifting – is to examine them. And that’s why, at FrameWorks, we prioritise framing research.

Ultimately, framing research allows us to develop long-term influencing strategies because it uncovers why people think what they do, and how we can present an issue to actually shift that thinking and create support and desire for policy and practice change.