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Excerpt: Polling Matters

The editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll explains why people need opinion polls.

- August 13, 2004

At some personal level, it is pretty obvious that an awful lot of people care what other people around them are thinking. Almost every one of us does informal polling. We ask friends, neighbors, even people next to us on the bus what they think or feel about an issue or problem. We share opinions, listen to gossip, and get a general feel for the lay of the land—opinionwise—of those around us. Everybody likes to talk about their opinions, and we listen back as others give us their thoughts. In fact, gossip, discussion, and verbal interaction have been the mainstays of the human species since speech first evolved. There's a lot of speculation about why this should be the case, but it is probably correct to say that we as a species benefit from our drive to hear and understand what other people are doing and thinking. It keeps us in tune with our environment and helps us stay alert to developments that may affect us. People may deride gossip as negative, nasty, and counterproductive, but scholars tell us that gossip is a very important element of human social interaction.

The bottom line is that knowing what other people feel or think appears to be of basic importance to the species. Humans live with and around other people. Acquiring a knowledge of these people is an important way in which humans manage to survive, get along, and come together to accomplish common goals. Thus, I think one of the most important rationales for polling is the fundamental interest that humans have in the opinions of those around them.

Indeed, a social psychologist named Leon Festinger—one of the great minds in the development of social psychology in the 1950s and 1960s—developed a "theory of social comparison" which attempted to explain the interest humans have in the opinions of others. He argued that humans have an innate drive to compare themselves to others. Festinger said that we constantly seek a reference standard against which to analyze our own thinking. "Festinger postulated that there is a basic drive in human beings to evaluate their opinions and abilities; he stated once again that when physical reality checks are not available in making these evaluations the person will use others as a point of reference...." In other words, when it is not possible to check our attitudes, opinions, and feelings against a concrete reality (as is the case most of the time when it comes to attitudes and opinions), we are interested in comparing them to the attitudes, opinions, and feelings of others. As Festinger said, "An opinion, a belief, an attitude is 'correct,' 'valid' and 'proper' to the extent that it is anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions and attitudes." We are driven to want to know what other people think in order to put our own opinions in context.

At previous times in history, most residents of small villages or towns had little trouble following through on this drive. They essentially knew what everyone in their restricted social world was thinking. There was enough gossiping and sharing of opinions that most people were fairly knowledgeable about where those around them stood on the key issues of the day.

But there have been changes over the years in the ability of humans to compare themselves to people in the social systems around them. Human societies have gotten bigger. It is impossible, for the most part, to know what everyone in our social sphere is thinking. We don't have the social networks and highly frequent face-to-face interaction that we once did. Instead, there's been movement toward surrogate interaction brought about by technology—mainly radio, television, and the Internet.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documents this transition in his fascinating 2000 book, Bowling Alone. He makes the case that Americans are increasingly less likely to engage in activities that bring them into contact with their fellow humans (exemplified by the decline in group participation in bowling leagues that forms the rationale for the title). Putnam amasses evidence to show that

across a very wide range of activities, the last several decades have witnessed a striking diminution of regular contacts with our friends and neighbors. We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage casual social interaction, we spend more time watching (admittedly, some of it in the presence of others) and less time doing. We know our neighbors less well, and we see old friends less often.

In other words, we don't spend as much personal, experiential time to find out what others are thinking as we may have had in the past, for a variety of reasons.

However, I don't think these facts of life suggest that there's less interest in being with and finding out about friends and neighbors than there has been in the past. On the contrary, the drive is still there. But in many ways, the structure of our society today encourages people to seek to fulfill their social comparison drive in different (and perhaps less satisfying) ways than the old face-to-face patterns that dominated in the past.

Mass media are a big factor here. Much of television, a lot of talk radio, and a good deal of the Internet, in one way or another, are an expanded version of old-style face-to-face talk and discussion. Indeed, as we move into the electronic digital age, maybe it is not surprising that aspects of the media that appear to fascinate us most are those that give us the chance to hear from or about other people. Much television programming today, from sitcoms to cable news, is a window into the lives and thoughts of others. Television (and movies) provide surrogate neighbors, friends, and families. In recent years, television has turned increasingly to talk programming and "reality" shows that allow us to observe and hear from and about other "real" humans. Radio talk shows have become important mechanisms by which Americans get their news and information about the world around them (particularly the political world). Some of the most popular features of the Internet are e-mail, chat rooms, and instant messaging that allow us to talk back and forth with others. People apparently still thrive on getting to know other people and like to tune in to find out just what other people are doing, how they are doing it, and what they're thinking about. They're just doing it in a different way.

I'm fascinated with local television newscasts—which in today's American society can be a prominent way in which we figure out what our friends and neighbors are doing and thinking. Television consultants point out that the on-air crew of the typical evening newscast in many ways represents a family setting to viewers: the father figure (typical male anchor), the mother figure (female anchor), the bratty brother or sister (weathercaster), and the visiting uncle (sportscaster). We tune in to the 6 and 11 p.m. news as much to spend time with these surrogate family members as we do to find out about the latest murder, fire, or car wreck.

In other words, the electronic mass media have helped meet the need for learning about others in a world in which there are millions of people and in which many individuals no longer live in the intense, highly networked, smaller social environments of the past.

Polling performs a parallel function in a different way. It compiles and compresses the opinions of millions of people. Polling gives us the ability to understand—fairly precisely—what the people around us think and feel about the key issues of the day. It provides the same types of insights into our neighbors that we might have obtained in days gone by from gossip at the village pub, but on an expanded basis that involves literally all of our neighbors.

When we polled people about polls (which pollsters do) in June 2001, for example, we found significant support for the idea that people like the content of polls:

• 76 percent of Americans were interested in polls about political campaigns and elections, including the presidential election (34 percent said they were very interested, and 42 percent said they were somewhat interested). Only 23 percent said they were not too interested or not at all interested.

• There was an even higher interest in hearing about the results of polls "which measure how Americans feel about the major political issues of the day, including those on which Congress is debating and voting": 77 percent of those polled said they were interested in these types of polls, with only 22 percent not too interested or not at all interested.

• 64 percent of Americans were interested in polls about Americans' religious attitudes and behaviors, 85 percent were interested in polls measuring Americans' feelings about the economy and business and industry, and 66 percent were interested in polls measuring Americans' attitudes about the entertainment industry.

• The highest interest level of all was in polls measuring Americans' attitudes about enduring social issues such as gun control, abortion, and affirmative action. A whopping 88 percent were interested in these types of polls, including 57 percent who said they were very interested. Only 12 percent were not interested.

This human drive to want to know about the opinions and feelings of others is certainly the reason why newspaper editors and broadcast producers use polls as a significant part of their daily news coverage. Most media gatekeepers are fairly cold-blooded when they make decisions on the content of their publications and broadcasts. They want material that will interest their readers and viewers and increase circulation and ratings. Thus, it's significant that these gatekeepers seem to be committed to the idea of getting the views of the common people into their news coverage. In the old days this was done with "man in the street" interviews, by which reporters provided flavor and texture to news coverage.

Polling today simply provides information from all of the "men in the street." The fact that polls have moved to a prominent position in the media firmament is confirmation of their interest to the average consumer. In a big, mass world, polling provides a shorthand way to figure out what our fellow humans are thinking and feeling.

As we will discuss later in this book, this interest on the part of humans to know about others has its perverse side. We often don't like it if we find that other people do not share our personal opinions and views. It is, I think, a love-hate relationship. We want to know what others are thinking, but we may not like what we find. Fundamentally, however, the fact remains that much of the reason we have polling today is that humans find it interesting and fascinating to understand the people around them.

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll. This is excerpted from Polling Matters, by Frank Newport. Copyright © 2004 by The Gallup Organization and published by Warner Books. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Polling Matters at Amazon.com.



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