Wording Affects Poll Results

poll; wordingAs we’ve said many times, words matter. This article from Pacific Standard does a great job of pointing out how easily we are all swayed by how a question is worded.

The author, Gregory Ferenstein, polled people about Indiana’s Religious Freedom law, which allows businesses to refuse service to customers on religious grounds (widely interpreted as allowing discrimination against same-sex couples). The results he got depended on how he worded the question:

Based on the specific language, 67 percent of Americans “Oppose a law allowing refusal of service,” while 60 percent of Americans oppose a law “forbidding refusal of service,” according to two simultaneous national opinion polls I conducted this week.

The problem with asking people about the Indiana discrimination law is that they inherently fall victim to a very common error in survey methods: the forbid-allow asymmetry. Americans tend to loathe the government telling people what to do. For instance, many more Americans support both interracial marriage and gay marriage when asked if couples should be forbidden from getting married, rather than being asked if couples should be allowed to get married.

Ferenstein drew two conclusions from his polling experiment. First, that Americans just don’t like government interference. And second, that Americans haven’t put much thought into the issue of religious freedom and discrimination of same-sex couples. He points to another poll he did in which, no matter the wording, he got the same result—Americans don’t want people making phone calls during plane flights. Apparently, this is an issue that we’ve put a lot of thought into.

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