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Opinion Pollster Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: People can radically change their minds in an instant, and not even notice

This is the second of a series of five myths and truths of polling from Stephan Shakespeare. Last week he examined the myth of The Big Swing. Follow Stephan on Twitter.

One of the givens of political campaigning is that values are deeper than opinions. This may be true, but unfortunately neither is very deep. Recent research using a ‘magic’ trick demonstrates this very cleverly.

Hall, Johansson and Strandberg (in ‘Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey’, 2012) asked volunteers to fill out a paper-based survey presented on a clipboard. A thin film of paper covered one version of a question with an opposite version (click here for pictures and a fuller description). When the volunteer filled in the survey and turned the page, the answered version of the question became automatically removed and a new, contradictory version was revealed on the page. Magic.

So, the respondent saw the questions like “It is more important for a society to protect the personal integrity of its citizens than to promote their welfare”, and then agreed or disagreed on a ten-point scale. On turning the page, the answered question transformed into its opposite: “It is more important for a society to promote the welfare of its citizens than to protect their personal integrity”. Some volunteers got the question in a more concrete, issue-based version, “Large-scale government surveillance of email and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism’ – with ‘forbidden’ later turning by magic into ‘permitted’.

After the survey was completed, the participants discussed their answers with the researchers – seeing their recorded opinions now reversed. Did they notice? Did they accept their new opinions and new values? Did they justify them? The results were astonishing (and please do read the full text of the paper to see just how carefully constructed and fairly conducted this experiment was – I leave out the detailed methodology): in the majority of cases, the volunteers did not detect that their answers had been reversed; 69% of them accepted at least one of the two manipulated reversals. And there was no difference whether the question took the more abstract or the more concrete form.

This does not, of course, mean that opinions and values are randomly held. If that were the case, then surveys would typically show 50-50 results (at least, when formats are randomly varied), and they don’t. And if the experiment were repeated with long-held and much-discussed issues (say, the death penalty) I expect rejection of the manipulated reversed opinion would be much higher. The use of the trick to make a participant feel as if their falsified answer was indeed their actually given answer, and reporting on it to a live interviewer (instead of, for example, online) also makes it likelier they they would re-arrange their thinking in order to appear consistent. But even with these provisos, the conclusion must be: opinions and values tend to be lightly held. As the authors of the study observe, “If previously there was the trouble of stated attitudes often not translating into actions, now we have compounded this by showing that moral attitudes sometimes can be reversed moments after they are announced.”

A possible explanation for the apparent malleability of moral views, suggested by the authors, is that "the function of reasoning and argumentation... [is] primarily... a means of convincing others that whatever conclusion I have reached is the correct one". Justifying one's position, by whatever means that position happens to present itself, may be more important to us than 'being right'.

In any case, political campaigners should not count too heavily on the stability of any opinions, deeply held convictions, or perhaps even 'core' moral principles, either among the public or their colleagues or themselves. For example, people who declare themselves pro-EU or anti-EU might switch for any number of trivial reasons, at any time. Does that mean opinions don't matter, or are largely unpredictable? Or does it contradict my piece last week about the myth of 'campaign swings'? I don't think so, as I will explore next week.


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