People's Choice Study: Paul Lazarsfeld

Brief Background:

The study of media effects has been broken up into three main eras. The first era developed in the 1930s. This perspective, “the powerful effect of media”, focused on the effects of propaganda during the World Wars. The second extended from 1940 into the 1950s. This perspective is known as “limited effects”. In contrast to the prior, this theory states that media effects are not universal, but rather interpreted differently based on individual background, experience, and beliefs. The final era is the “powerful but limited” theory, extending from 1960 to present day. This theory argues that the media can evoke mass effect within certain areas.


The People’s Choice Study was executed in support of the limited effects theory of Era II by a team of Columbia University’s department of Sociology researchers. The study focused on the process of decision making during the 1940 presidential election between Wendall Willkie (R) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (D). The objective of the study was to find out how and why people voted as they did in regards to media effects. During this study, the team hypothesized about finding the direct effect of media, but rather concluded in the end that personal contacts were more influential than media exposure.

Those Involved:

The People's Choice Study was led by three important researchers: Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet.
Paul Felix Larzasfeld
Sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld of Austria is commonly thought to be one of the most influential social scientists of his time. Born on February 13, 1901, Lazarsfeld attended the University of Vienna and received his Ph.D in applied mathematics. In 1925 he founded the first of four institutes centered around the research of the application of psychology to social and economic problems. He later went on to found the University of Newark, the Office of Radio Research at Princeton University and the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University.

Bernard Berelson, a behavioral scientist, was another key researcher in the People's Choice Study. Born inBernard Berelson Washington on June 2, 1912, he helped make major advancements in research of the field of communications, voting studies, and population policy. Berelson earned an Associates Degree from Whitman College, a Bachelors of Science and a Masters Degree from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. In 1944, Berelson was hired at Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research as the project director. There he met and began collaboration with Lazarsfeld on the People's Choice Study.The People's Choice

The last member to join the team was Hazel Gaudet, born in 1908. Though struggled with the sexism of the 1940s businessworld, Gaudet was a major part of the People's Choice study. Gaudet co-authored the People's Choice, one of two of Columbia Universities first major studies that were published, as well as "The Invasion from Mars" study. As well as co-authoring these studies, she helped universally turn survey and applied research toward politics.

The study was funded largely by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and Life magazine.


During the 1940 presidential election between candidate Wendell Wilkie (R) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (D), the researching team of the three aforementioned researchers, as well as fifteen interviewers, executed the study to evaluate the effects of the media over various voters. A selected 600 households in Erie County, Ohio, a total of 2,400 individual voters, were interviewed a series of seven times throughout the presidential campaigns. Through the analysis of these periodic interviews of the subjects and control groups, the team was able to track the decision-making process and therefore the effect of the media. Two-Step Model of Communication

One of the major results of this study was the development of the paradigm shift, the "Two-Step Flow Model" of communication. Contrary to previous media effects theories, this model (as seen to the left) suggests that the media does not have a direct impact of power over the individual consumers. Instead, however, the media impacts various "opinion leaders" who, in turn, influence the individuals. This model of communication was the basis of the "Limited Effects Theory" of Era II: due to selective exposure and selective comprehension and interpretation, the media has limited direct power over its consumers. This theory reshaped the way in which media effects have since thus been studied.

The book, The People’s Choice, which described the results of media effects on the election of 1940, was finally published after eight years of long distance collaboration and documentation.


Lazarsfeld, P.F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1968) The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign [Electronic version].

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