Polls and the Power of Self-Manipulation

Dr. Charlotte Laws author reporter and television commentator official website for articles

Being a poll or focus group participant is more fun than visiting a therapist. In the case of the former, you are asked to share your opinion with a room full of total strangers or anonymously with the entire nation.

With respect to the latter, you are only able to tell one person: the psychologist. To make matters worse, this person is under an ethical obligation to keep your opinions private, unless, of course, you speak of committing heinous crimes. By making criminal confessions, you may be heard by all of the people, some of the time. But then you will end up in prison, only to be heard by none of the people, all of the time. It’s a real bummer.

Focus groups are qualitative, in-depth interviews with a select group of people on a particular product or issue while polls are verbal or written questionnaires that must be answered in a multiple choice format. With polls, there is no room for explanation, details, or in many cases, accuracy. If you fail to fit neatly into the form’s or interviewer’s pre-ordained categories, you must guess, lie or risk not qualifying for the survey, which, of course, means your opinion will not be heard. And who wants that?

Although I have been involved personally with a number of market research focus groups—such as one sponsored by the White House years ago to help Hillary Clinton with her now defunct universal healthcare initiative—I have only once participated in a poll. This was for the 2004 presidential election, and what I learned about the polling process and potentially flawed results was shocking.

Polls seem to provide a valuable gauge of public opinion, yet they will always be criticized for accidental, sometimes intentional, inaccuracies. For example, polls were wrong about the Dewey – Truman race in 1948, Reagan – Carter in 1980, and Bush – Gore in 2000. They concluded Kerry would prevail in 2004. Polls were used recently to make the argument that American values are “red” and that no one will ever be elected president who tries to circumvent this “Gospel” truth.

Frank Luntz, the pollster who has gained notoriety through regular appearances on Chris Matthews’ Hardball, says that words are critical in shaping public opinion. He adds that many politicians do not understand that the way a question or comment is framed can mean the difference between political victory or defeat.

The book, Perfectly Legal, says the question, “Would you pay more taxes to halt rising crime rates?” wins a substantially higher percentage of “yes” votes than “Would you pay more taxes to increase law enforcement,” although both mean the same thing.

This explains how religious groups can come up with figures showing public opposition to gambling while casino interests can demonstrate the reverse. It explains why conservatives may have altogether different statistics than liberals.

Measurement itself is subjective. If a pollster calls to ask if you saw the Bush vs. Kerry debate, what qualifies as an affirmative response? What if you saw ten seconds while “flipping channels” in search of pro-wrestling or Extreme Makeover? What about a full ten minutes? What if you had the sound turned down, while negotiating business on the phone?

What if you watched the whole debate, but immediately forgot what was said after turning off the set? Can you honestly tell the pollster you watched it? If you do, will you skew the results? John Zogby says, “Even the most thorough polls are open to interpretation.”

My 2004 election experience involved the Zogby International polling organization. I volunteered to be an email respondent, and I received questionnaires on a regular basis, especially after significant events, such as the Democratic and Republican conventions and Kerry’s hunting expedition.

What I learned from this experience was astounding. I was the victim of self-manipulation, and my vote was, in the end, not spontaneous, but instead the product of thought processes which normally would never have come to the fore.

The survey results I created for Zogby—and I say “created” because it became an inventive enterprise—were mostly born of cursory moves, but sometimes more deliberate ones. My ambiguous and puzzling behavior was evident in five ways.

First, there was the “It’s better to fabricate a bit, but be counted” factor. This meant that when I encountered a Zogby question which didn’t work for me, such as when asked whether I was a liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian, not sure, or none of the above, I refused to select “not sure” or “none of the above,” even though these were closer to the truth.

I repeatedly answered “moderate,” because “not sure” made me sound indecisive or doltish. With “none of the above,” I was convinced my opinions would be tossed aside. I had to be counted. Better to be a “pretend moderate.”

Secondly, there was the “Shoot, I misread the last question, but can’t go back” factor. This was mostly born of computer fear and occurred when I clicked to the next page of the questionnaire and realize that I botched the previous question. Hitting “back” is always risky. Better to leave the wrong answer than lose the survey in the internet black hole. So I did.

Thirdly, there was the “Hazy memory” factor. When I encountered questions in which I had previously fabricated an answer, such as pretending to be a moderate, I would sometimes forget what I had said. This created panic and the need to try to reconstruct what I had done before.

I specifically had problems with my religion. I consider myself a “Jewish Jain.” Along with various forms of the Christian faith, “Jewish” was an option, but “Jain” was not. This time, however, Zogby also provided a fill-in blank, along with the usual, less appealing “not sure” and “none of the above.”

I could never remember whether I had chosen “Jewish,” or written “Jain,” or written “Jewish Jain,” or completely gone crazy and answered “not sure” or “none of the above.” It was terribly confusing and stressful. I found myself trying to re-create answers I had given in the previous weeks and months.

Fourthly, there was the “No one is gonna manipulate me, except me” factor. Because the questionnaires were sent after consequential events—such as when the Swift Boat ads aired or Cheney falsely declared he had never met Edwards—it became evident that Zogby wanted to know if I had been swayed by these factors.

I could not possibly look like a vacillator, like I could be controlled or convinced by a mere “incident” reported in the press. I was an independent thinker, by gosh. My self-image was at stake, so I steadfastly clung to the same answers time and time again; that is, if I could remember what they were.

Lastly, there was the “I can’t disappoint the poll” factor.” Since the onset, I had committed to the same candidate over and over, due to the “No one is gonna manipulate me, except me” factor.

I had completed my last Zogby questionnaire, and it was time to vote for president. It would be unethical to deviate now. I couldn’t abandon that poor poll, leave it to wither, forgotten in a landfill somewhere. It trusted me. It needed me. It wanted me to authenticate it. I may have manipulated my vote in the end so as not to disappoint the poll. I cannot be sure.

But I am sure of two things. First, It would be interesting to see a poll about poll participants like me—the results which, of course, couldn’t be trusted. Secondly, Seemingly accurate studies may be tied to the “Self-fulfilling prophecy” factor. Pollsters and poll participants may be fooling all of the people, all of the time. Including themselves.


Published in the Simon Magazine in 2004 and on the Zogby International website.