Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (37): When Surveyed, People Express Opinions They Don’t Hold

It’s been a while since the last post in this series, so here’s a recap of its purpose. This blog promotes the quantitative approach to human rights: we need to complement the traditional approaches – anecdotal, journalistic, legal, judicial etc. – with one that focuses on data, country rankings, international comparisons, catastrophe measurement, indexes etc.

Because this statistical approach is important, it’s also important to engage with measurement problems, and there are quite a few in the case of human rights. After all, you can’t measure respect for human rights like you can measure the weight or size of an object. There are huge obstacles to overcome in human rights measurement. On top of the measurement difficulties that are specific to the area of human rights, this area suffers from some of the general problems in statistics. Hence, there’s a blog series here about problems and abuse in statistics in general.

Take for example polling or surveying. A lot, but not all, information on human rights violations comes from surveys and opinion polls, and it’s therefore of the utmost importance to describe what can go wrong when designing, implementing and using surveys and polls. (Previous posts about problems in polling and surveying are here, here, here, here and here).

One interesting problem is the following:

Simply because the surveyor is asking the question, respondents believe that they should have an opinion about it. For example, researchers have shown that large minorities would respond to questions about obscure or even fictitious issues, such as providing opinions on countries that don’t exist. (source, source)

Of course, when people express opinions they don’t have, we risk drawing the wrong conclusions from surveys. We also risk that a future survey asking the same questions comes up with totally different results. Confusion guaranteed. After all, if we make up our opinions when someone asks us, and those aren’t really our opinions but rather unreflected reactions we give because of a sense of obligation, it’s unlikely that we will express the same opinion in the future.

Another reason for this effect is probably our reluctance to come across as ignorant: rather than selecting the “I don’t know/no opinion” answer, we just pick one of the other possible answers. Again a cause of distortions.


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