Monday, December 16, 2013

Don't Trust Opinion Polls

The information from opinion polls is unreliable.  That is not always the result of poor polling techniques, inadequate sample size or leading questions.  The primary reason opinion polls are unreliable is that opinions are unreliable.

Take, for example, the latest release from CBS News analyzing polls about guns laws in the US.  The article provides a table showing the change in opinions over the last two years.  Those who favored stricter gun laws were 46% in January 2011.  After dropping to 39%, they increased to a solid majority of 57% immediately after the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident in Connecticut.  Now, a year later that percentage is back down to 49%, almost where it began.

What facts have changed over that period?  There was a shooting in the theater in Colorado in July 2012 and in Newtown, Connecticut last December.  There were really no major incidents over the last year other than the trial last summer of George Zimmerman for the Trayvon Martin shooting, which occurred in February 2012.  It is impossible to explain such variability of opinion over that period except to say that it was based more on emotions and feelings than on facts.

Such results make it very clear why the news media, advertisers and politicians work so hard to get us feeling angry, scared, insecure, or even inspired.  They count on us to make decisions, make purchases or cast ballots, before the critical thinking kicks in.  In highly charged cases like gun control, for some people the critical thinking never kicks in, but others seem to eventually settle back to their original assessment.  In most cases there is a period, and psychologists have done many experiments to prove it, when feelings and judgments are very much influenced by recent exposure to positive or negative experiences.  These experiences may be personal, or they may be intensive news coverage or peer pressure.  Scientists have even shown that locating polling booths in a school makes voters more likely to favor school-related referendums.

Though it’s clear that opinion polls must be taken with a grain of salt, how many of our laws and election outcomes are a result of this short-lived irrational behavior?

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