The Illusion Of Public Opinion
Why opinion surveys usually exaggerate public engagement in social issues.
In my last post, I talked about why the #1 challenge for animal advocates (as it is for most social change advocates) is just getting people to pay attention to their issues. This is also a challenge for social scientists (like those of us at Faunalytics) who use surveys to understand opinions about issues that have relatively little public awareness. Simply by asking someone a question, researchers lend substance to the issue being addressed.
In other words, by asking people about their opinions of animal protection issues, we presume that they in fact have opinions. In these cases, many respondents will feel compelled to offer their thoughts, even if they’ve never considered the issue before. This is part of what author/professor George Bishop calls the Illusion of Public Opinion.
One stark example comes from a survey conducted by Bishop and his colleagues regarding a fictitious piece of legislation, the “1995 Social Security Reform Act.” When asked if they favor or oppose repealing the act, a surprising 22-25% of respondents offered an opinion. So the desire to respond (or to avoid saying “I don’t know”) compels up to a fourth of U.S. adults to give their opinions regarding a law that doesn’t even exist. Similarly, people will respond to a question about farm animal confinement (for instance) even if they’ve never thought about it before.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the survey results are inaccurate, but in a lot of cases they will overstate how much consideration respondents have given the issue. The lesson for animal advocates using research is to be cautious when relying on public opinion surveys to accurately portray what people think about animal issues. Until these issues are elevated further in the public’s consciousness, most people just do not have well-formed opinions.
This is not meant to suggest that such surveys aren’t useful. Quite the contrary, at Faunalytics we believe that animal advocates should be doing more surveys to measure public opinion and identify trends over time. However, we also encourage animal advocates to be smart consumers of research, and to get outside help when needed. Public opinion may be an illusion, but there are those who have the knowledge and tools to see past the smoke and mirrors.
In my next post I’ll talk about a few of those tools, including “deliberative” opinion polls to measure the impact of an informed audience, and the “mushiness index” to determine how firmly (or not) the public believes something. Both are cognitive tools to understand how people respond to survey questions and to improve quantitative research design.
What do you think? Are public opinion surveys a good measure of people’s attitudes? Share your thoughts by clicking on “add new comment” below.