The role play of respondents. The Pantomime of Polls.

Used car, low mileage…contact your local, friendly Member of Parliament

I do think a lot of social opinion research misses a big point. We’re not supposed to love Politicians. It’s our role as voters to distrust them. We revel in it. That’s how we’re wired. Sure, we trudge off to the polling booth to vote for them. And of course we devote hours immersed in the news cycles each month following their every move. But trust them??

And such is the disconnect between many earnest poll questions and the realities of public opinion. Today a trusted colleague, a professional I greatly respect, tweeted over a link to a disturbing new poll. New polls are always disturbing. (They play a role too.)  The figures said that few of us trust either the Government or Market Researchers with their data. Maybe I’m just getting ho-hum about having my profession bagged in every latest disturbing study, but I wondered whether my colleagues had missed something in their research. 

For sure, it is one thing to know that only 30% of us trust our Governments with our data. (Frankly I’m surprised that it is that much.) But if the other 70% have some or serious distrust on the issue – do they actually give a damn about it?

In other words we are used to measuring the breadth of sentiment, but often we do little to measure the depth of sentiment. Have those 70% written to their MP about Privacy? Have they signed a petition? Shared an angry tweet? Marched down main street?

Polls going back for decades have demonstrated the fixed social role the public allocates politicians and us pollsters. We’re always down near the bottom of the trusted profession list: cellar-dwellers with our favorite bad guys: the used  car salesmen.  But these results are a role play; a social construct – they are part of our culture. So I’m no longer shocked or amused about who wears the bad hats in this public play.

In Pantomime we know there’s going to be a big bad wolf. I do think it is time to ask deeper questions that dig beneath these paradoxes:

  • If you distrust retailers (or car salespeople) – how come you still buy from them?
  • If you  ‘hate the media” how come you watch the news and TV for as many hours per week as in the 1970s?
  • If you distrust polls, how come you read them?

These are paradoxes that, were we to find some answers, would reveal a lot about the trade-offs and real values of the public we love to measure.

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