Asking questions in a vacuum
5/4/10 / David Kennedy
Think polls make things a little too simple sometimes? Ever wonder why reality didn’t measure up to expectations (that came from a poll or survey question)?
The Economist summed it up nicely in an article from last week’s edition.
When asked whether they supported a variety of issues, most people showed strong support. However, when the downsides of those propositions were pointed out, support decreased significantly. The strongest example was support for outfitting soldiers with the best equipment – 83% strongly supported. When reminded that it would mean less spent on public services that they’d receive, support dropped to 46%.
Interestingly, alcohol bucked the trend. When asked if the government should try to limit people’s boozing by taxing alcohol more 32% strongly agreed. When reminded that it would mean they’d personally pay more for alcohol, there was no statistical change. Presumably, people understood this issue well enough from the start and knew it meant they’d pay more, and therefore that was already calculated into their first response.
Many, if not all, issues can be framed in terms of gains or losses for those concerned. Asking a question that only addresses one side of the coin is considered a research bias. Pundits and politicians may rely on biased questioning to sway support for their beliefs, but researchers shouldn’t.
In the end, be careful what you’re asking. People don’t make decisions in a vacuum and your research shouldn’t be conducted in one either.