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Burst Your Bubble: Why Polling Matters

It seems like a rhetorical question. Why wouldn’t public opinion research matter? 

Polling is one of the best ways to check the ‘pulse’ of the public.  At IRI, public opinion research is a cornerstone of our work, and we conduct survey research on an ongoing basis in many countries around the globe. However, in my work, I have found that there is another self-evident but often overlooked value in polling:  in addition to being a source of important information on public opinion, polling also serves as important aid that allows citizens, policy makers, decision-makers, politicians, experts, and the media to grasp the big picture that they otherwise might miss due to the bubble they live in.

Representative democracy and referenda are the closest we get to having the general population voice its electoral and policy preferences. Between elections or referenda, polling the public’s opinion on governance and policy issues provides direct consultation with citizens for those who seek to represent them.  Polling serves as a continuous conversation with all citizens. It provides a unique arena for a cross-national deliberation which can lead to more representative decision making in government. Through scientifically sound survey work, a solid methodology is used to understand and get insight into the opinions, behaviors, and attitudes of millions of people by talking with just a fraction of them. All layers of society are consulted, instead of the usual experts, politicians, and academics. By approaching polling results without prejudice and stereotypes, and looking beyond horse-race data, we get to genuinely understand the people of a country, their hopes, and fears, as well as their troubles and desires.

Yet with any poll anywhere in the world, there are some who will dispute the results. Inevitably, cries that “these poll results cannot be true, everyone I know think differently,” “These poll results must be made up, I am 50 years old and I’ve never been interviewed by a polling agency,” “I don’t believe these poll results, who could possibly like this politician,” “This result must be wrong,” are slung at pollsters from the United Kingdom to Guatemala to Macedonia.

This is not to say that polls, as is the case with any other information, should not be seen through a critical lens. For example, both professional and public audiences should be able to distinguish between a scientifically sound and a scientifically flawed poll. People should know there is a difference between leading and non-leading questions. Question formats and terminology can be an important factor when it comes to the general public knowing what the question means. All these will help the reader get a more sound understanding of any poll findings.

The truth is, each of us lives in a bubble of one form or another.  We all have a certain paradigm which reconfirms our opinions and judgments each and every day. We may be exposed to a few different opinions, but this does not give us a holistic view.  To live outside a bubble means to be constantly aware of other groups of people, to acknowledge their positions and where they come from, and why they feel like they do.

This is where polling comes in.  As a pollster, I encounter all kinds of comments that aim to refute empirical evidence. Even educated and informed decision makers are also prone to writing off dissenting polling data and prone to confirmation bias. This is a standard way to miss seeing the big picture polling provides, and to continue living in the comfort of cognitive consistency.

But if we want to live in a modern democracy, a way to decrease psychological tensions caused by unanticipated data and cognitive dissonance is to take into account new information, change our way of thinking, and enhance our understanding of the world around us. Living and acting in a democracy requires seeing the big picture, and that means genuinely taking into account the other percentages in poll results – those of others who hold a differing opinion.

Political and civic leaders must understand that recognizing and acknowledging cognitively dissonant information is a fundamental aspect of functioning successfully in a democratic society. Poll results which challenge our views tell us that what a political leadership is doing does not resonate with the citizens. For politicians, as for most people, this is difficult to acknowledge. But when it comes to politicians, it is even more important because of the high impact their behavior has on how a society progresses and develops.  Politicians and those in power are often even more immersed in groupthink and confirmation bias that can dismiss a differing opinion to keep their mind in cognitive consistency. But scientifically valid and methodologically unbiased poll results often hold more truth than any surrounding nodding heads. Poll results that contradict expectations tell us that our current interpretation of issues and events might be out of touch of with what other parts of society think. This could potentially mean that the way a politician or a civic activist is framing messages is not being well received by the public. Another way to react to such cognitive dissonance is to change and adjust one’s own behavior. And if politicians, activists, and change-makers are dedicated to making a difference and implementing change, paying attention to opposing opinions matters even more.  

For political leaders, there will always be plenty of nodding heads to reconfirm them in their own bubbles. The truth, as delivered by sound public opinion research, is there only for those who choose to see it. “