We tend to think that public opinion reflects the truth about the current situation. But in reality, nothing is more inaccurate and biased than people’s opinions and here are some good reasons why.
It seems that now more than ever people’s opinions are being heralded as the truth and are considered to be as important as the actual news. But how many times have you read a public opinion poll only for it to be completely off-base? Elections, for example, always produce opinion polls and rarely do they live up to the actual results.
Here are 8 reasons based on science that show why we shouldn’t rely on public opinion:
1. The sample size is not big enough
To get a truly representative poll of public opinion, you need to ask a large enough sample of the population. The problem is that it is really difficult to get a large enough sample size for the results to be a fair representation. The law of numbers tells us that the bigger the sample, the closer the trend will be to a true representation of the public.
However, getting enough people to take part has always proved to be problematic.
2. The sample diversity is not diverse enough
It is virtually impossible to reach every ethnic background, class, culture or race when it comes to public opinions. Not only that but you will also find that certain topics attract certain personality types, and you also have to take into account the time the public were asked a specific question.
All these little details add up to what could be perceived as a wrong result.
3. The Bandwagon Effect is not taken into account
We are all individuals with our own free will and ability to make conscious decisions about our life – right? Wrong! Studies have shown that human beings tend to want to agree with one another so that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
There have been numerous social psychology experiments where several actors in the study gave obvious wrong answers and this influenced the participants to also give wrong answers. In a more general sense, if many of our friends say a restaurant serves bad food, we are more likely not to visit there, without seeing for ourselves.
4. Biased questions are asked
Many researchers adopt a double-blind method when carrying out an experiment as they do not want to subconsciously influence the results.
Unfortunately, this is not true of all studies, where certain language might be used to steer participants to a particular conclusion. Words such as ‘Loony Left’ virtually destroyed the Labour Party in the UK in the 1980’s and took years to shake off the term.
5. Public opinions do not take into account nuances
In the famous Brexit vote that the UK took part in back in 2016, there were simply two questions – Do you want to stay in the EU or Do you want to leave the EU? The whole world knows the answer that the British public gave; 52% wanted to leave. But in the weeks following the vote, many Leavers began to regret their vote, stating that they didn’t really understand the consequences when it became clear what would happen next.
This is the problem when you only have two options.
6. People do not tell the truth
The last presidential campaign that saw Donald Trump blast his way into the Whitehouse was not predicted by any US polls. In fact, everyone thought Hillary Clinton would smash it. So how come Trump won? Experts in political opinion and strategies state that the most obvious answer is that people lied about voting for Trump.
A similar thing happened in the UK where pollsters put the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn in with a chance of beating the Conservatives, but thanks to the ‘Secret Tory Voter’, a conservative voter who does not tell anyone they are voting Tory, he failed.
7. The results are skewed to suit the study
If you are carrying out a poll that has your reputation tied in with it, then you clearly need it to show what you have been stating. The problem is when you don’t get the exact results you’re anticipating so you cherry pick to suit your study.
An example of this is the author Shere Hite who used a survey to back up her claims that over half of women who had been married for over 5 years were having an affair. The problem arose when it became clear Hite had heavily selected certain women who had the affairs.
8. The questions influence the public opinion
Language is a powerful tool and can have a huge impact on the way people perceive a certain subject. If you were asked ‘Do you think the terrorist leader Nelson Mandela should be released?’ you’d probably say no. But if the question was phrased as ‘Should the peace-loving champion of black issues – Nelson Mandela be released?’ you might say yes.
The next time you are asked your opinion on a matter, have a think about the way the question is being asked, who else has been invited to share their opinions, how many were asked and why the surveyors want your opinion. By being a little more proactive we might be able to trust public opinion after all.