Monday, February 02, 2004

Polls should carefully word gay questions - 02/02/04

The Detroit news had an interesting article this morning about the acceptance of gay issues in America. It seems that a lot of the apparent tolerance (or not) to gay issues can be influenced by the way people are asked for their views. Small changes in the wording of questions can significantly affect the responses people give.

“Top poll analysts have noted with alarm that two respected national polls asking slightly different questions about amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage produced such different outcomes. (An Annenberg Center poll found Americans, by a 12-point margin, oppose “an amendment banning gay marriage.” But a CBS News poll found that by a 15-point margin Americans favor an amendment “that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman.”) “

I know that this seems a pretty small distinction in the way the question was framed, but it resulted in a 3% difference in response. Given that the democrats and republicans are in full gear for elections, this type of poll will no doubt influence the development of policy, so it is important to get it right.

One solution is for pollsters to refashion their tools to try to ensure they are merely taking the public pulse and are never accidentally producing results that are more hostile to gay progress than the public actually is.

For the last 50 years, researchers have consistently found a “spiral of silence” — meaning, people are less likely to voice their true opinion if they think it’s not the majority view. And given the human tendency to try to conform, many people give whatever reply they think the questioner — or pollster — wants to hear.

The article also notes that “polling suggests that Americans tend to overestimate each other’s hostility to homosexuality. “ If a question was addressed “Do you agree that discrimination against gay men in the workplace is acceptable?” you are more likely to receive a negative response, whereas asking “ Can you understand why some employers would prefer to employ a heterosexual work than a homosexual worker?” skews the issue in a different way.

It isn’t the role of polls to change public opinion, simply to reflect it. However, as the wording can influence the response make sure that you always know what the question was when someone quotes ‘public opinion’ at you.