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Opinion surveys on a scale of 1 to 10

Overview

Published: 09/18/2012

by Jim Campbell

Every few weeks there's a phone call to take part in an opinion survey. "It will only take a few minutes, just a few questions...." Experience has taught me they usually take longer than they say and the questions are too hard! "On a scale of one to 10, how do you rate this government program? Our education system? How do you feel about the quality of your telephone service?" Are you "Very unhappy? Somewhat unhappy? Happy? Somewhat happy? Very happy?" with the service?

What's the difference between happy and very happy? Is giving a rating of seven significantly different than giving a six or an eight? (I usually give 'seven' when asked for a 'one-to-ten' answer. Having a favourite number saves a lot of time.)

Actually, surveys are all about numbers. They change our 'unhappy' into a number because they are easy to deal with. You can add numbers, multiply and divide them, 'seasonally adjust' them, turn them into percentages and, which is most fun, compare them to other numbers. Besides, numbers look impressive, scientific and honest, they give off an aura of authority.

We love our numbers and percentages; we are obsessed with measuring things and collecting statistics. We seldom question them. When the corporate scandals filled the news pages, at lunch, some one said, "Those CEO's are only in it for the money!" I quietly said, "Actually, only 41.6 per cent." No one questioned my invented statistic! I don't suppose many statistics are invented out of nothing but I think we should question more of them.

I'm sure the people who give us all the percentages and statistics can do the math -- add, subtract, multiply and cast percentages. But, the numbers are only as good as the questions that are asked. Is the question framed to get certain responses? Is the question too big or complex for a "one to 10" judgment? Who is asking the question? Why? What is the answer they are looking to get? A good deal of skepticism would serve us well when people pop numbers, percentages and statistics at us day after day.

There is more to it than the possibility of misinformation or the distortion of facts. Numbers are too impersonal. For example, each year-end the news people report on the number of murders in the year past and start a new count for the New Year. Before they leave the old year, they give the percentage up or down for the year. Obviously 'up' is bad, 'down' is good. If I were an editor I'd publish the list of every one of the victims for the year, with details about the causes, the families and the community impact. Numbers are just numbers. People are flesh and blood.

Numbers are used to encourage childish attitudes about what is right and wrong or good and bad. The key argument, used by teens in permission-seeking bouts with their parents, is, "Everyone is going ... wearing them ... everyone else's parents say it is OK." If 'everyone is doing it,' it must be all right.

Those who have endured such arguments have good comebacks, "Everyone can be wrong. A stampeding herd can race over a cliff; Lemmings can race to the sea and death." Even the old adage that declared that 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong is not valid. Values, what is right and wrong, good or bad, have nothing to do with the percentage of people for or against. They stand alone.

With all this common sense on our side, you'd think we'd be immune from the herd instinct. However, advertisers, politicians, opinion makers and spin doctors know that telling people about what 'everyone' believes, does, wants or hopes, sells products, gets votes, changes opinions and outcomes.

Why are people so easily manipulated by the numbers game? The same reason teenagers watch what everyone is doing. It is to belong, to fit in, to be 'with it' and up to date.

I try to remember that, while being part of a group is good, letting any group of people determine your values isn't. It is not good to hand over your moral principles to anyone else. Oh yes! I'm not doing any more surveys. On a scale of 'one to 10, I give them a zero.

Jim Campbell is a writer based in Oakville, Ont. Your comments are welcome via post, or by e-mail to homedigesteditor@sympatico.ca.

 

 

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