Thursday, January 12, 2012

I am going to jump off a bridge!!!

“Recent poll states that 96.72% of Canadians want to jump off a bridge”

Far too often, It happens, sitting down for supper the phone rings, and occasionally, you drop your knife and fork and answer it.

“Good Evening, this is Joe Bothersome calling from Interruptus Polling Group and would you mind responding to a question that we are surveying people in your area”... 
“Sure” your reply, looking at your Sheppard’s Pie cooling on your dinner table. 
Joe continues, “Thank you, we have only one question. If you were asked to jump of a bridge, would you?”... 
Your obvious response would be “Not a chance”.. End of survey and you head back to your room temperature meal.

Several days later, mid evening, as you scroll through your television channels, looking for something to break the boredom, again the phone rings. Aha... maybe someone to talk to, to socialize with, and to catch up on the local gossip.  
You are greeted with a pleasant friendly voice “Good Evening, my name is Mary Nicety-Nice; I hope that I have not interrupted you, but we are calling a few people in your neighbourhood with a quick question, do you have time to answer?”  
Keen to respond to this pleasant person, you agree to chat. Mary explains “We are wondering if you were fortunate enough to be on vacation in Cuba, and along with the many beautiful places you visit, you have the opportunity to swim with the dolphins in the clear warm ocean, would you enjoy that?” 
Excited at the premise, your respond “Damn right I would!!”. 
Mary continues, “so you would have no problem stepping off a small walking bridge into the water to join the dolphins?”.  
Your response is an obvious one. “Of course not”.  Unfortunately your pleasant banter with Mary is over and you return back to your channel surfing.

Next morning you read the headlines in the paper. “Recent poll states that 96.72% of Canadians want to jump off a bridge”

I know that this is an exaggerated example, but this is reality as it relates to public opinion polls. Pollsters are obviously much shrewder in the manner they design and deliver polls. But our newspapers are full of results that are almost certainly skewed to present certain point of view. With a little research, it is interesting to understand who has commissioned the poll. And more interesting yet, to look at the specific methods and order of questions being asked.

A simple question alone (the core question within the survey), can lead to a specific response, but also more discreetly, when the primary question is placed within the series of questions. Preliminary questions can soften you up and poise you to respond in a particular favour. Even the method of delivering the poll can falsely represent what the true outcome would be. I leave you to consider, if the time of day, a friendly voice, an abrupt pollster, a written questionnaire, or even an automated “select a number on your phone keypad” would change your responses to questions. The anonymity of a written or automated survey may create a heightened sense of anonymity, verses, having to respond to a friendly chatty pollster.

Why does this matter? We are constantly faced with very complicated social and political issues, and these issues, are frequently provided with public opinion polls as supporting arguments, or combating this issues. We don’t always take the time to personally research and study all of the aspects of these issues, so it is human nature to follow the mob. If 80% of my fellow community members agree with a policy.. it is easier to go with the flow and support it as well.

But blindly following the results of polls may also have you standing at the edge of a bridge, and it is a long, long way down to the water below – and no friendly dolphins to swim with.

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