Why Polls Shouldn't Be Used to Make Decisions

  By: Joe Messerli

"I must take a poll to find out where my people are going so I can lead them there." -- Unknown

"Democracy is a belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance." -- HL Mencken.

You've seen the daily headlines and news stories: 51 percent support the Iraq war, up from 49.7 percent last week...78 percent support a ban on partial birth abortion...40 percent support a dividend tax cut according to one poll, but 55 percent according to another poll....95 percent of American people polled are sick of hearing poll results...blah blah blah. It seems every day in every newspaper and every news show we get a new poll. Americans are fascinated with polls, and they often base their opinions and views of the world on their results. Politicians do the same, but to a much larger extent, and they will usually base their decisions largely on these poll numbers.

Is this a good thing? To a certain extent, yes, it is. After all, a politician is specifically elected to represent a collection of people. Who would want an official in government who never listens to the people? Polls are a way to make the voice of the individual citizen heard. Unfortunately, things aren't all that simple. Polls are inherently bad vehicles for making a decision. Although they should always be taken into consideration, polls are a very poor way to determine the correct course of action. Let's examine the reasons polls have limited usefulness.

Poll Results Aren't Always Reliable

Polls can be inaccurate for a number of reasons:

Samples can be too small in size or unrepresentative of the population

It's normally too expensive or time-consuming to survey everyone in population; thus, we must rely on samples to gauge the opinions of everyone. A reliable, scientific poll questions a large enough sample of people to ensure statistical accuracy and includes a representative selection of respondents. Thus, a poll designed to represent American public opinion wouldn't be very reliable if it only included 10 people or included only white males. It's rare that news reports will mention details of the information sample or how the survey was conducted. Viewers and readers usually just take the poll results as fact. For example, what if I reported a poll that said 96 percent of Americans are pro-choice? This obviously doesn't reflect American public opinion, but if the source was a survey of the feminist magazine Bitch readers, the results would be understandable. A clever or sloppy journalist can obscure the source and portray public opinion in an inaccurate way. Think about all the polls that are done today and how easy results can become unrepresentative. Web polls exclude people without web access and those who don't visit that particular site. Polls also exclude those that don't have the time or interest to respond. Think about TV polls. Fox generally has more conservative viewers; CNN generally has more liberal viewers. Thus, their polls results may be skewed to the conservative or liberal side regardless of the issue. The chances for error or bias are endless.

Polls can ask leading questions

Questions can be worded in a way that leads a respondent to an answer that may or may not reflect his true feelings. For example, I could ask the question "Do you want to stop the war in Iraq so the lives of innocent civilians can be spared?" Virtually every American wants to prevent innocent loss of life, so many respondents may answer yes to this question, even if they think the war is morally just. But reporters summarizing the results may say "...95 percent of respondents answered yes when asked if they wanted to stop the war". The questioner can also surround the question with information that biases the answer. For example, "Seventy percent of homeless shelter residents are single mothers and their children. Should the next fiscal budget include an increase in funds to local shelters?" Respondents may believe the money is better spent on other areas, but the extra information points people in the direction of one answer.

Polls can omit some of the possible answers, leading to either-or answers that don't reflect reality

Answers to poll questions are often more complicated that yes-no or among a small list of choices. For example, a poll may ask "Do you support a war with Iran?" The only choices may be yes or no. But many people may say "Yes, but only if they are making nuclear weapons" or "Yes, but only if it is sanctioned by the U.N." Another example is a consumer confidence question that asks, "Do you consider yourself rich or poor?" Many people will want to answer something in between, but that isn't a choice.

People recording survey results may be dishonest or sloppy in recording results

Whether the poll is done in person, by phone, by mail, or by web, a human being usually has to eventually tally & report the results. That causes problems for two reasons. One, a human is prone to mistakes. If you're tallying thousands of responses, you're bound to make mistakes. Even if a computer handles the tally, computers are still programmed by humans. Second, the person may be dishonest and wants to achieve a certain result. For example, assume I'm a passionate advocate for banning the death penalty and am taking a phone survey. A strong poll result showing the public in favor of a death-penalty ban may convince some politicians to take action. When taking a poll, it's easy for me to put some extra chalk marks in the anti-death penalty column even when people are answering pro-death penalty in the phone calls. Eventually, I may just achieve the poll result that I want.

Poll results can be presented in a misleading way

Most news stories don't present the raw data behind a poll and let you draw your own conclusion. Instead, the results will be presented in summary format as part of an analysis article. For example, a poll question may ask "Do you support military action to unseat the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Iran (Yes | No | Unsure)?" The raw data result may be: 29 percent support, 28 percent oppose, 43 percent unsure. The correct conclusion to draw from this poll is that the public generally hasn't made up its mind or needs more information. However, a biased reporter may selectively draw from the results and give the wrong impression. For example, "The idea of military action against Iran is increasingly unpopular. A recent poll concluded that only 29 percent support action, handcuffing the hawks of the Bush administration."

Even if polls are scientifically accurate and are done by unbiased, profession polling organizations, there are still other problems that make polls unreliable.

Results Change Daily Depending on the Latest News, Speeches, Moods, Etc.

Public opinion follows a cyclical flow depending on the latest current events and mood of the public. If you took a poll on 9/12/2001 asking what the President's primary concern should be, over 90 percent of the public would answer the War on Terror. If you asked the same question now, the War on Terror would likely finish behind the health care, energy prices, and the economy. This is just one example of how public opinion changes constantly. The presidential approval rating almost always will spike up in the aftermath of war or after a State of the Union address. After a particularly bad weekend in the Iraq invasion in which several servicemen were captured, a helicopter crash occurred, and a few dirty Iraqi tactics resulted in American deaths, polls showed that almost 60 percent of the public thought the initial phase of the war would last over three months (it actually took 3 weeks). It's pretty clear that you can't depend on public opinion polls to make decisions when opinions are so wide and fleeting.

The Toughest Decisions are the Easiest to Put Off

Most human beings are notorious procrastinators. Facing challenges or change is never easy. When decisions are too difficult to decide, the easiest thing to do is ignore it, hoping it will go away, or leave it for someone else. All things being equal, people will usually take the safer decision or the one that results in the least immediate sacrifice. Most public opinion polls around the world showed a firm anti-Iraq war opinion even among people who thought Saddam would have to be dealt with sooner or later. The choice came down to whether we deal with the hardship & risk now or do we deal with it later. Naturally, most people chose later. Politicians are especially prone to putting off tough decisions since it usually doesn't hurt their campaign to do nothing, but it may destroy their political careers if they make a choice and it turns out to be wrong. Think of all the other tough decisions facing us. Do we remove affirmative action policies? A politician may feel the removal is the best thing to do for the country, but any such removal would likely alienate black voters; thus, he puts off the decision. Any tough action is going to be vocally opposed by a portion of the public. The courageous politician is one who will act.

Leaders Influence Public Opinion

Political leaders shouldn't depend entirely on polls since they themselves have a significant impact on it. During the Iraq war debate, Tony Blair faced polls showing almost 85 percent opposed the war without UN approval. However, he steadfastly stuck to his guns, never wavering in his support. By the time the war had started, 50-60 percent of the public backed him. Before President Bush gave his UN speech advocating the return of weapons inspectors, only 40 percent of the public backed a war in Iraq. By the start of the war, over 70 percent of Americans supported it. On the flip side, war opposition continued to increase in countries such as France and Germany. Not coincidentally, their leaders were vocally opposed to the war. National leaders receive loads of attention. When they persuasively get their message out, public opinion polls can change dramatically. Clearly, they shouldn't depend on polls given before a case has been made.

The Public May Not Have All the Information that the Government Does

It seems self-evident that a person should collect all relevant information before making a decision. That said, how many people who vote in public opinion polls have all the relevant information? How many have researched the issue and weighed all arguments for and against? How many have the historical, scientific, political, and economic background knowledge? How many know of the behind-the-scenes political dealings and classified intelligence? The answer to these questions is probably very few. Consider the Iraq war debate. Over 40 percent of the American public couldn't identify Iraq on a world map before the debate started. Most didn't know (and still don't know) the history of Saddam, the Iran-Iraq War, the first Persian Gulf War, the gassing of the Kurds, the former weapons inspectors, etc. The government also had plenty of sensitive intelligence information including weapons of mass destruction, terrorist connections, and Saddam's atrocities. Although a sizeable minority of people devoted the time to diligently study the issue and come to an intelligent decision, most Americans were basing their decisions on such things as whether or not they were Republican or Democrat. As the opening quote illustrates, making decisions based on polls is based on the collective ignorance of the population.

Opinions of the Public Aren't Always the Correct Ones

Perhaps the greatest reason decisions shouldn't be based on public opinion polls is that the general public is often outright wrong. The vast majority of Germans supported the Nazis prior to World War II. Were their opinions correct? The vast majority of colonial Americans thought blacks weren't much different from animals. Prior to the 1970s, the majority of psychologists thought homosexuality was a psychological disorder; it even was classified in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders. I'm willing to bet that less than 10 percent of Americans would have answered 'yes' to the question "Is Islamic terrorism a significant threat to national security?" on 9/10/2001.

Clearly, there are too many factors left to chance when a politician depends on public opinion polls. The 9/11 carnage and the dancing celebration of liberated Iraqis have shown us that we need leaders who will put their political careers on the line to do what's right. The very definition of a leader is one who will do what he or she knows is right, no matter what the election impact.

A leader's relevant decision makers should be his heart and mind, not his political consultants and Gallup polls readouts.

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Last Updated: 01/07/2012

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