Lazarfeld’s Two Step Flow and Opinion Leaders

The People’s Choice study conducted by Lazarfeld is one of the most important studies conducted during the war time years. Lazarfeld was fascinated by quantitative techniques to explore social phenomena. The study was designed to answer: ‘To what extent did the radio and newspapers shape voters’ choice in a presidential election?’ The 1940 presidential election was used.

Research was conducted on Eric County, Ohio. 600 randomly selected respondents were given a telephone survey at various points throughout the 1940 campaign season. Responses were compared with 4 control groups in different months to make sure that the repeated surveys were not biasing results.

Lazarfeld wanted to know when voters made up their mind about how they would vote in the November election and whether their exposure to news media affected their decision. The results showed that very few voters actually changed their minds over the course of the campaign. Lazarfeld’s team found that voters reported news exposure served mainly to reinforce their previous position.

A second study on opinion leaders in Illinois discovered 693 reported opinion leaders.

This research resulted in a new theory of media effects called two-step flow of communication (which you can see in the image below). Katz and Lazarfeld reasoned that the impact of media messages flows through opinion leaders who then pass along this influence to other audiences. This model suggests that the lack of media influence found in previous studies was likely because scholars had not adequately understood the role that person-to-person communication played in media effects.

The close connection between interpersonal communication and mass media impact was an important contribution of personal influence.


The two-step flow of communication model says that most people form their opinions under the influence of opinion leaders, who in turn are influenced by the mass media. In contrast to the one-step flow of the hypodermic needle model or magic bullet theory, which holds that people are directly influenced by mass media, according to the two-step flow model, ideas flow from mass media to opinion leaders, and from them to a wider population.

Notes in this post are from my semester 2 lectures and seminars and Sullivan, JL (2013) Media Audiences: London: Sage – THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE (1944) AND PERSONAL INFLUENCE (1955).
I do not own the above image, it is from:

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