public opinion polling

Hidden Brains and Revealed Truths about Human Behavior

Shankar Vedantam does what public opinion pollsters can’t do – look inside the hidden brains of people to learn why they behave as they do. [Photo Credit: NPR]

Shankar Vedantam does what public opinion pollsters can’t do – look inside the hidden brains of people to learn why they behave as they do. [Photo Credit: NPR]

A central purpose of research is to find out what people think. Shankar Vedantam, the host of Hidden Brain, explores how people behave.

Vedantam is NPR’s social sciences correspondent who reports on human behavior, with a flair for fetching headlines. Some of his recent reports include:

  • “Close Enough: The Lure of Living Through Others”

  • “One Head, Two Brains: How the Brain’s Hemispheres Shape the World We See”

  • “Rewinding & Rewriting: The Alternate Universes in Our Heads”

  • “Why did So Many Americans Trust Russian Hackers’ Election Propaganda”

  • “The Best Medicine: Decoding the Hidden Meanings of Laughter”

  • “Why Consumers Systematically Give Inflated Grades for Poor Service”

His Hidden Brain podcasts do what public opinion polls don’t or can’t do. He looks at research from the likes of psychologists, neuroscientists and cultural anthropologists that examines what people actually do and tries to explain why.

Vedantam doesn’t have the usual credentials for exploring human behavior. His undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering and his master’s degree is in journalism. Early-career fellowships dealing with mental health, public health, science and religion helped to steer his award-winning career in the direction of trying to understand why people do what they do.

For example, Vedantam reported that people shy away from giving extremely negative ratings for service because they don’t want people to lose their jobs. The business school professor who informed his conclusion compared it why teachers tend to inflate grades for their students. “Nobody complains,” he said, “when they get an ‘A’.”

The style of his reporting is more light than heavy. But it isn’t frivolous fluff. Vedantam authored a book based on his reporting titled, “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives.”

Frustration with polling often centers on its accuracy in predicting how people will vote. Vedantam’s reporting bypasses that frustration by digging into the mindset of voters, consumers, students and people in general that causes certain behavior. It tells us something about ourselves that we might not realize or choose to ignore. It is a form of radio talk therapy.

The social sciences are playing a larger role in shaping business decisions from how to market a product, respond to complaints and design people-friendly features. Social sciences research offers clues to group behavior, organizational effectiveness and game theory. Companies are hiring cultural anthropologists. Kevin O’Leary, Shark Tank’s brutally blunt investor, majored in psychology and environmental studies. 

Vedantam offers a gentler approach to the truth than O’Leary that can be valuable in helping listeners take stock of why they and other people think and behave the way we do. He makes uncomfortable reality easy to hear and consider.

 

New Book Says Polls Provide Indications, Not Predictions

Anthony Salvanto with CBS News has written a new book that explains what polling can and can’t do. It’s a good place to begin to become a savvy research consumer.

Anthony Salvanto with CBS News has written a new book that explains what polling can and can’t do. It’s a good place to begin to become a savvy research consumer.

Political polls give indications of voter attitudes, not predictions of election outcomes, says Anthony Salvanto in his new book, Where Did You Get This Number.

Salvanto, the director of elections and surveys for CBS News, says he wrote his book to explain how polling works after skepticism arose following the 2016 presidential election that polls suggested was a lock for Hillary Clinton. She did win the popular vote, but lost in states critical to a victory in the Electoral College. The polls were right and wrong at the same time.

In an interview on Face the Nation, Salvanto said he is often asked how national poll numbers are generated based on as few as 1,000 ten-minute telephone interviews. He explains representative samples can produce reliable results. Pollsters may not interview you, but they interview people like you.

A representative sample is just part of the best practices followed by professional pollsters. Clear, objective questions must be asked. Individual questions should test a single variable. Conclusions should be tempered by statistical validity. For example, a national poll with a 1,000-respondent sample may provide a valid national picture, but not a statistically valid picture of voters in Colorado.

Even the most scrupulous professional pollsters don’t always get the numbers exactly right. There often is a slight, but significant skew as a result of the specific methodology a pollster uses. For example,  failure to include a representative number of random sample calls to cell phone users could under-represent younger people, low-income families and minorities.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com argues it is more reliable to look at groups of polls through the lens of a probability model.  He claims analyzing a pool of polls and weighting each one by their history of accuracy can burp out a more accurate polling results. Even then, Salvanto would say, it is not a prediction, just a reflection in time.

Then there are the polls that aren’t really polls. Push-polls ask questions, less to get an answer and more to deliver a message, often a negative one, about a political opponent. Cheap robopolls get lower than average response rates, which can skew results. Because they are prohibited by law from calling cell phone users randomly, they have a built-in bias.

The bottom line: Purchasers need to be smart consumers of research. Before looking at results, look at the sample so you know whose views are represented in the results. Understand the methodology being used and the statistical confidence it will yield. Know the benefits and limitations of different types of research, and certainly between qualitative and quantitative research. Collaborate with a pollster on the questions that need to be asked and let him or her advise you how to ask them fairly so you get usable responses, not just what you want to hear.

Salvanto’s book may be the place to start on your journey to understanding polling’s potential and limitations.

 

Pew Tracks Partisan Split Over ‘Openness to World’

A recent Pew Research survey shows a sharp partisan divide on whether we should welcome or resist an open world view.

A recent Pew Research survey shows a sharp partisan divide on whether we should welcome or resist an open world view.

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Americans overall embrace an openness to the people of the world, but the difference in viewpoints between Democrats and Republicans is staggering.

Pew Research found 68 percent of Americans view “openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation.” However, that masks that 84 percent of Democrats agree with that view as contrasted to only 47 percent of Republicans.

The finding provides context for the reaction – and non-reaction – to President Trump’s controversial comment last week about immigrants from “shithole countries.”

The Pew survey, conducted last summer among 2,505 US adults, showed general agreement among all age groups and levels of education to an openness to the people from around the world. The glaring difference was between Americans who identified as Democrats or Republicans.

On a separate question, 48 percent of Republicans said openness to people from around the world could “risk losing our identity as a nation.” Only 14 percent of Democrats share that concern.

Views are somewhat less divisive over the question of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. Seventy-six percent of Democrats agree diversity will make the United States a “better place to live,” compared to 51 percent of Republicans.

The data confirms what has been obvious since 1968 in American electoral history. Following passage in Congress with Democratic majorities of civil rights and voting rights legislation, voting patterns in the Deep South switched from Democratic to Republican. That may have been accompanied by a realignment of party affiliation. Regardless, there is a clear distinction on world view and immigration between parties.

The partisan split on world view is not mirrored to the same extent by race, age or education. Younger people are the most open in their world view and older people the least open, but in both cases their openness sharply exceeds that of people identifying as Republican or conservative.

A Pew Research survey earlier last year found 64 percent of Americans viewed increasing racial and ethnic diversity as a positive. The biggest difference in the survey was among Democrats (76 percent) and Republicans (51 percent).

It would be fair to speculate that Trump understands these numbers and calibrates his statements and tweets to appeal to his political base that questions openness to the world and fears the upshot of increasing diversity in America.

More curious is the blind spot in many Americans’ world view to the economic benefit to the United States of global trade and capital flows.

 

Using Research to Find Out What You Need to Know

The moment you think you know it all is the exact moment you need to stop and take stock. Quality, affordable research can make the difference on a new product, rebranding exercise, website home page or ad campaign.

The moment you think you know it all is the exact moment you need to stop and take stock. Quality, affordable research can make the difference on a new product, rebranding exercise, website home page or ad campaign.

The moment you think you know it all is exactly the moment when you need to stop and take stock. Hubris can turn on a dime into expensive mistakes.

Market research and timely public opinion polling is often dismissed on grounds that “we already know the answer to our questions.” That may be true, but it could be a disaster for a business plan, communications strategy or a school bond campaign if it isn’t true.

Frequently hubris is cloaked as a budgetary concern. “We can’t afford conducting any research right now.” Experience shows that many businesses, nonprofits and public agencies can’t afford not to conduct research.

Cockiness can be the cousin of recklessness. Most executives wouldn’t think of making a major decision without legal or financial counsel. So why would they risk the fate of a new product, the design of a website landing page or the effectiveness of an expensive ad buy based on a hunch or a gut feeling?

Research can be overlooked because of unfamiliarity with all its different forms. Many people think of research as only telephone polls or focus groups. Those are common types of research, but there are many other options that may fit better with a project and a budget.

One-on-one interviews is a cost-effective way to gather reliable information. These interviews won’t produce pie-chart results, but they will generate useful perspective and context. Say an executive is ready to launch a new initiative. One-on-one interviews can test whether his top lieutenants are on board or have lingering concerns. A nonprofit is considering a name change. One-on-one interviews can help ascertain how much brand equity resides in the current name and the aspirations for a new name.

For consumer-facing businesses, follow-up online surveys can gauge customer satisfaction and identify problems with products, personnel or shipping.

Roundtable discussions, whether in lunchrooms or at community centers, are an underutilized form of research. You might think of these as informal focus groups where you can collect information directly from participants and view group interaction. Both can provide insight, either by reaffirming what you thought, countering your assumptions or uncovering something you never thought of before.

An old-fashioned idea, which remains relevant, is to walk around and talk to people. Ask employees what they would improve. Ask customers whether you are meeting their expectations. Ask vendors how you could do business better and more profitably.

Research professionals are valuable resources who can give advice on the type of research that matches what you need and what you have to spend. They also can assist on what questions you ask and how they are framed to avoid biasing answers and skewing results.

One final thought. Third-party research, whether in the form of surveys or interviews, can yield more candid responses, especially if the topics explored relate to bosses and their plans.

The fundamental value proposition for quality research is what helps you find out what you need to know, not just what you want to hear.

 

Four Different Pollsters, Four Different Results

Political polling can vary widely based on factors such as who is interviewed and the weighting pollsters give to likely voters, white voters, Hispanic voters and black voters.

Political polling can vary widely based on factors such as who is interviewed and the weighting pollsters give to likely voters, white voters, Hispanic voters and black voters.

Wariness of presidential political polls is warranted. The New York Times conducted an experiment that involved four different pollsters evaluating the same data set, which produced four different results.

Hillary Clinton received 42 percent support in two of the four polls and 39 percent and 40 percent in the other two. Donald Trump topped out at 41 percent in one poll, 39 percent in another and 38 percent in the other two. The Times “benchmark” poll had it 41 percent for Clinton and 40 percent for Trump.

The experiment highlights how polling, even by credible pollsters, can vary widely within the acceptable norms of polling. Critical variables include a representative sample, sampling error and basic assumptions. The latter accounted for the variance in the Times experiment that centered on the same 867 poll responses.

The most significant variables in the pollster analysis of response data: predicting the percentage of white, Hispanic and black likely voters in the November 8 general election.

When white voters reached 70 percent and Hispanic voters fell to 13 percent, Trump came out ahead by a percentage point.

When white voters were estimated at 68 percent and Hispanic voters at 15 percent, Clinton prevailed by 3 percentage points.

These choices weren’t random. Different pollsters relied on different models or sources of data. For example, the pollster who predicted the biggest lead for Clinton used self-reported intentions for likely voters, traditional weighting and Census data. The pollster who gave the nod to Trump relied on voter history to determine likely voters, a weighting model and voter files.

Their varying decisions on these questions add up to big differences in the result,” according to Nate Cohn in The Upshot report on polling. “In general, the pollsters who used vote history in the likely voter model showed a better result for Mr. Trump.”

Laid bare, the experiment shows “there really is a lot of flexibility for pollsters to make choices that generate a fundamentally different result. You can see why we say it’s best to average polls and to stop fretting so much about single polls.”

Tom Eiland is a CFM partner and the leader of the firm’s research practice. His work merges online research with client communications and engagement efforts, and he has a wide range of clients in the education, health care and transportation sectors. You can reach Tom at tome@cfmpdx.com.

Lies, Damned Lies and Demographics

Demographics could be turned on their head in the 2016 presidential election by an unconventional candidate with unpredictable appeal in “flippable” states that could determine who wins in November.

Demographics could be turned on their head in the 2016 presidential election by an unconventional candidate with unpredictable appeal in “flippable” states that could determine who wins in November.

Demographics are just statistics with faces. But demographics are also statistics influenced by non-quantitative facts, such as political passion.

In presidential elections, demographics draw a lot of attention. This year is no exception, though some of the usual demographic lines have been scrambled, in large part because of the insurgent “outsider” campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Trump has attracted strong support from white men, including union workers in Rust Belt states, and evangelicals, despite a lack of credentials on dealing with social issues. Sanders’ “political revolution" appealed to many young voters, but it also revived the interest of older voters who had dropped off of the political map. Hillary Clinton, who has strong appeal for women voters, has managed to gather as strong or stronger support from African-Americans and Latinos than Barack Obama in 2008.

Despite high negative ratings and demographic predictions that Republican presidential prospects this year were circling the drain, Trump emerged from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week with a slight lead over Clinton.

According to fivethirtyeight.com, Republican presidential nominees do best among white voters without college degrees. But this demographic cohort is aging and declining by about 3 percent every four years. Meanwhile, whites with a college degree, who lean Republican but do cross over, are increasing by 1 or more percentage points every four years.

“In other words, Democrats’ coalition of non-white, young and well-educated voters continues to expand every election, while Republicans’ coalition of white, older and less-educated voters keeps shrinking,” said David Wasserman, writing for fivethirtyeight.com. "It’s no wonder Democrats have an emerging ‘stranglehold on the Electoral College’ because of favorable trends in states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.”

However, that stranglehold seems a little limp in this election cycle. 

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, says demographics don’t favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as strongly as some might imagine.

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, says demographics don’t favor Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as strongly as some might imagine.

Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, says just a small percentage shift in voting could flip Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin to the GOP in 2016, providing enough electoral votes to capture the presidency.

Trump is stretching traditional demographic line by pushing his opposition to trade deals and a law and order agenda that hold appeal for disaffected voters in the Rust Belt and Middle America.

Of those states Silver identifies as “flippable," Sanders outpolled Clinton in Colorado, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Sanders and Clinton were virtually tied in Iowa and Sanders came close to winning Michigan, another Rust Belt state with a lot of blue-collar union voters. A contributing factor in Sanders’ success was his opposition to trade deals, which he said left many American workers in the lurch.

The Clinton campaign is working hard at the Democratic National Convention this week to woo Sanders’ supporters. But Silver says it may be a fool’s errand because many Sanders’ supporters are new or irregular voters who may not even vote in November. He also says some Sanders’ voters are politically independent and “ticket-splitters."

The upshot is Clinton may be forced to hustle to retain union voters from Trump and Sanders supporters from a third-party candidate like Jill Stein of the Green Party.

Another demographic down note for Clinton is that her commanding lead among Latino voters may be deceiving in terms of its impact on the Electoral College. Silver says Latino votes are concentrated in states such as California, New York and Texas that aren’t in play. That is changing as Latino populations increase across the nation, which have led some to suggest that predictably red states like Arizona could become purple. However, the change may not occur this year.

Some of Clinton’s strongest support in the primary came in Southern states where African-American votes dominated Democratic voting. Normally they wouldn’t turn Red states blue, but conservative voters upset with Trump could produce surprises in states such as North Carolina and George, where polls show Trump even with Clinton. Another election-day surprise could be Utah, dominated by Mormons who are offended by Trump’s politics. Clinton is holding her own there, too.