A new paper posted here – Beware The Siren Songs Of Opinion Polling – argues that campaigns drawn into trying to navigate by what the polls say, or seduced into trying to win by changing ‘public opinion’, risk running aground and becoming stuck fast, just as ancient sailors were lured onto rocks by the songs of Sirens.
Winston Churchill said: “There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion”. Any opinion poll, or a report of a poll, is not a reality of raw public opinion but a processed, manufactured product. The polling process, the publication process, the reporting process and even the process of subsequent debate and word of mouth, all manufacture the meaning that we think an opinion poll shows us.
The report notes how back in 2002 Pollster Frank Luntz successfully lured climate campaigners into trying to win the argument over climate change – in which ‘climate polls’ play a pivotal role – and even today, more than a decade later, many fall for his ploy, when all the fossil fuel lobby needed to succeed, was to keep the debate going.
It gives examples of how many poll results are driven by Daniel Kahnemans’ “System 1” intuitive decision making process, loaded with cognitive biases such as consistency, social proof and anchoring, whereas the authority of polling depends on us accepting that they depict an objective reality arrived at by analytical thinking and rationality. It shows how the results of polling are often more to do with the effects of heuristics and substitution, WYSIATI, values and framing, than knowledge or understanding. For instance salience effects mean that ‘concern’ is driven upwards by media coverage, and downwards by the lack of it, while consistency effects mean that behaviour, not analysis or logic, drive answers.
Meanwhile selective reporting, choice-architecture, confirmation bias, group-think and herd-behaviour in the media, political gaming and commercial self-interest in attention to conventional wisdoms, add to the mix and make polling a dangerous, unreliable and trixy guide to what you should do in campaigns.
It argues that, while not completely ignoring polls, campaigners should focus on outcomes, not changing opinion, and it offers ‘ten rules’ for campaigners needing to interpret opinion polling.
It concludes: “To chase the chimera of changing opinion rather than changing outcomes, risks leading you round in circles, like A A Milne’s Pooh Bear who ends up walking round and round a tree in pursuit of a Woozle, before he realises he is following his own foot-steps.
“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a — a — a Woozle?”
“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw-marks.”
‘I see now,’ said Winnie-the-Pooh ..’I have been Foolish and Deluded, and I am a Bear of no Brain at All.”
So if you are going to follow opinion polls, be sure to engage the brain first.”