At some personal level, it is pretty obvious that an awful lot of people care
what other people around them are thinking. Almost every one of us does informal
polling. We ask friends, neighbors, even people next to us on the bus what they
think or feel about an issue or problem. We share opinions, listen to gossip,
and get a general feel for the lay of the land—opinionwise—of those around us.
Everybody likes to talk about their opinions, and we listen back as others give
us their thoughts. In fact, gossip, discussion, and verbal interaction have been
the mainstays of the human species since speech first evolved. There’s a lot of
speculation about why this should be the case, but it is probably correct to say
that we as a species benefit from our drive to hear and understand what other
people are doing and thinking. It keeps us in tune with our environment and
helps us stay alert to developments that may affect us. People may deride gossip
as negative, nasty, and counterproductive, but scholars tell us that gossip is a
very important element of human social interaction.
The bottom line is that knowing what other people feel or think appears to be
of basic importance to the species. Humans live with and around other people.
Acquiring a knowledge of these people is an important way in which humans manage
to survive, get along, and come together to accomplish common goals. Thus, I
think one of the most important rationales for polling is the fundamental
interest that humans have in the opinions of those around them.
Indeed, a social psychologist named Leon Festinger—one of the great minds in
the development of social psychology in the 1950s and 1960s—developed a “theory
of social comparison” which attempted to explain the interest humans have in the
opinions of others. He argued that humans have an innate drive to compare
themselves to others. Festinger said that we constantly seek a reference
standard against which to analyze our own thinking. “Festinger postulated that
there is a basic drive in human beings to evaluate their opinions and abilities;
he stated once again that when physical reality checks are not available in
making these evaluations the person will use others as a point of reference . .
.”1 In other words, when it is not possible to check our attitudes, opinions,
and feelings against a concrete reality (as is the case most of the time when it
comes to attitudes and opinions), we are interested in comparing them to the
attitudes, opinions, and feelings of others. As Festinger said, “An opinion, a
belief, an attitude is ‘correct,’ ‘valid’ and ‘proper’ to the extent that it is
anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions and attitudes.”2 We
are driven to want to know what other people think in order to put our own
opinions in context.
At previous times in history, most residents of small villages or towns had
little trouble following through on this drive. They essentially knew what
everyone in their restricted social world was thinking. There was enough
gossiping and sharing of opinions that most people were fairly knowledgeable
about where those around them stood on the key issues of the day.
But there have been changes over the years in the ability of humans to
compare themselves to people in the social systems around them. Human societies
have gotten bigger. It is impossible, for the most part, to know what everyone
in our social sphere is thinking. We don’t have the social networks and highly
frequent face-to-face interaction that we once did. Instead, there’s been
movement toward surrogate interaction brought about by technology—mainly radio,
television, and the Internet.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documents this transition in his
fascinating 2000 book, Bowling Alone. He makes the case that Americans
are increasingly less likely to engage in activities that bring them into
contact with their fellow humans (exemplified by the decline in group
participation in bowling leagues that forms the rationale for the title). Putnam
amasses evidence to show that across a very wide range of activities, the last several decades have
witnessed a striking diminution of regular contacts with our friends and
neighbors. We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits
less often, we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage casual
social interaction, we spend more time watching (admittedly, some of it in the
presence of others) and less time doing. We know our neighbors less well, and
we see old friends less often. 3
In other words, we don’t spend as much personal, experiential time to find
out what others are thinking as we may have had in the past, for a variety of
However, I don’t think these facts of life suggest that there’s less interest
in being with and finding out about friends and neighbors than there has been in
the past. On the contrary, the drive is still there. But in many ways, the
structure of our society today encourages people to seek to fulfill their social
comparison drive in different (and perhaps less satisfying) ways than the old
face-to-face patterns that dominated in the past.
Mass media are a big factor here. Much of television, a lot of talk radio,
and a good deal of the Internet, in one way or another, are an expanded version
of old-style face-to-face talk and discussion. Indeed, as we move into the
electronic digital age, maybe it is not surprising that aspects of the media
that appear to fascinate us most are those that give us the chance to hear from
or about other people. Much television programming today, from sitcoms to cable
news, is a window into the lives and thoughts of others. Television (and movies)
provide surrogate neighbors, friends, and families. In recent years, television
has turned increasingly to talk programming and “reality” shows that allow us to
observe and hear from and about other “real” humans. Radio talk shows have
become important mechanisms by which Americans get their news and information
about the world around them (particularly the political world). Some of the most
popular features of the Internet are e-mail, chat rooms, and instant messaging
that allow us to talk back and forth with others. People apparently still thrive
on getting to know other people and like to tune in to find out just what other
people are doing, how they are doing it, and what they’re thinking about.
They’re just doing it in a different way.
I’m fascinated with local television newscasts—which in today’s American
society can be a prominent way in which we figure out what our friends and
neighbors are doing and thinking. Television consultants point out that the
on-air crew of the typical evening newscast in many ways represents a family
setting to viewers: the father figure (typical male anchor), the mother figure
(female anchor), the bratty brother or sister (weathercaster), and the visiting
uncle (sportscaster). We tune in to the 6 and 11 p.m. news as much to spend time
with these surrogate family members as we do to find out about the latest
murder, fire, or car wreck.
In other words, the electronic mass media have helped meet the need for
learning about others in a world in which there are millions of people and in
which many individuals no longer live in the intense, highly networked, smaller
social environments of the past.
Polling performs a parallel function in a different way. It compiles and
compresses the opinions of millions of people. Polling gives us the ability to
understand—fairly precisely—what the people around us think and feel about the
key issues of the day. It provides the same types of insights into our neighbors
that we might have obtained in days gone by from gossip at the village pub, but
on an expanded basis that involves literally all of our neighbors.
When we polled people about polls (which pollsters do) in June 2001, for
example, we found significant support for the idea that people like the
content of polls:
• 76 percent of Americans were interested in polls about political campaigns
and elections, including the presidential election (34 percent said they were
very interested, and 42 percent said they were somewhat interested). Only 23
percent said they were not too interested or not at all interested.
• There was an even higher interest in hearing about the results of polls
“which measure how Americans feel about the major political issues of the day,
including those on which Congress is debating and voting”: 77 percent of those
polled said they were interested in these types of polls, with only 22 percent
not too interested or not at all interested.
• 64 percent of Americans were interested in polls about Americans’
religious attitudes and behaviors, 85 percent were interested in polls measuring
Americans’ feelings about the economy and business and industry, and 66 percent
were interested in polls measuring Americans’ attitudes about the entertainment
• The highest interest level of all was in polls measuring Americans’
attitudes about enduring social issues such as gun control, abortion, and
affirmative action. A whopping 88 percent were interested in these types of
polls, including 57 percent who said they were very interested. Only 12 percent
were not interested.
This human drive to want to know about the opinions and feelings of others is
certainly the reason why newspaper editors and broadcast producers use polls as
a significant part of their daily news coverage. Most media gatekeepers are
fairly cold-blooded when they make decisions on the content of their
publications and broadcasts. They want material that will interest their readers
and viewers and increase circulation and ratings. Thus, it’s significant that
these gatekeepers seem to be committed to the idea of getting the views of the
common people into their news coverage. In the old days this was done with “man
in the street” interviews, by which reporters provided flavor and texture to
Polling today simply provides information from all of the “men in the
street.” The fact that polls have moved to a prominent position in the media
firmament is confirmation of their interest to the average consumer. In a big,
mass world, polling provides a shorthand way to figure out what our fellow
humans are thinking and feeling.
As we will discuss later in this book, this interest on the part of humans to
know about others has its perverse side. We often don’t like it if we find that
other people do not share our personal opinions and views. It is, I think, a
love-hate relationship. We want to know what others are thinking, but we may not
like what we find. Fundamentally, however, the fact remains that much of the
reason we have polling today is that humans find it interesting and fascinating
to understand the people around them.
THE SCIENTIFIC RATIONALE
Understanding things is the role of science. Scientists study their subject
matter—insects, trees, molecules, asteroids, rock formations—because it exists.
Mathematicians study the properties of numbers because they are there to be
studied. By studying “things” (that is, matter, nature, natural processes,
etc.), scientists add to the fund of human knowledge about the world. Scientists
assume that this is a true and noble goal. The scientific desire to understand
what goes on around us has been at the forefront of progress of the human
species as far back as we have written and oral records.
The motivation of the social scientists, psychologists, and pollsters who
study human beings for a living most certainly reflects this same sentiment. The
human species forms a fascinating subject of study. For many, in fact, humans
are the single most fascinating topic in the world.
My own initial interest in sociology and polling came about when I was in
high school in Texas and became more and more interested in the ways the people
around me were behaving. I found the status hierarchies and social patterns at
school to be weirdly compelling. I wasn’t interested in bugs or the planets or
chemical reactions, but in people. What interested me most was the
extraordinarily powerful impact that social categorization had on the daily
lives of all of us in high school. There was no printed list or official rules
that designated students as members of the jocks, nerds, cool kids, rejects,
cowboys, and so forth, yet these informal social categories (and who belonged in
each one) were well known and well understood by everyone at the school. One’s
positioning on the subjective ladder of popularity was so important that it
could be a make-or-break factor in one’s enjoyment of the entire high school
experience (as we learn when school shootings give tragic witness to the power
of rejection and feelings of isolation on the part of student loners).
Thus, for me—and most social scientists and survey researchers—the drive to
study and understand human beings is part and parcel of the same motivation to
acquire knowledge and understanding that has propelled science forward over the
There are a wide variety of ways to study individual humans on a one-by-one
basis. But there are very few ways to study large numbers of humans without
developing some system for systematically collecting information about them.
That’s particularly true in modern societies, when we’re talking about the
analysis of tens and hundreds of millions of people. Polling is thus of
particular interest to scientists who study people: it provides an effective,
quick, and cost-efficient way to analyze very large groups of humans without
having to extract measures from each one of them individually. It would take an
army of anthro- pologists to find and interview all of the residents of a state
or country (something the U.S. government attempts only once every ten years).
Polling short-circuits that process, and thus provides great practical value to
Polling also takes advantage of another very powerful fact of life. Humans
have the unique ability to talk about themselves. (After all, language is one of
the key things that separate us from our close cousins the apes.) Humans can
self-report their own behavior and save the scientist/observer the time and
trouble of having to constantly observe human actions him- or herself. This
includes reports of actual behavior (“I went to church last Sunday”) and the
emotional orientations to objects which we usually call attitudes (one’s
reaction to the question “How do you react when I say the word ‘abortion’?”).
Humans can report on their own history and—with varying degrees of
precision—predict their behavior in the future. Humans can also introspect and
report on what they perceive to be the reasons behind their behavior.
Polling thus provides the scientist interested in studying large groups of
humans a decided advantage in the scientific process of measurement and
discovery. Rocks, asteroids, ants, and neutrons cannot cooperate directly with
an investigator and talk about their own history, why they are doing or feeling
certain things, or inform others on what they intend to do in the future. Humans
can. Humans reflect, examine, remember, and project. Humans study themselves
and—of course—know themselves better than anyone else. This opens up enormous
possibilities. A subject that cooperates and can summarize and analyze itself—on
demand—provides amazingly fertile possibilities for investigators.
Polling, which for the most part consists of asking people questions about
their feelings, opinions, past behavior, and future behavior, takes advantage of
this uniquely human ability. And because of the miracle of sampling, polling
allows these measures to be obtained in ways that generalize to literally
millions of people. Polling is in many ways uniquely situated as a major
component of any scientific effort to study and understand the human species.
Polling thus has two primary benefits: it allows us to generalize—with a good
deal of precision—to very large groups of people without having to study each of
them individually, and it takes advantage of the ability of humans to
A tour through the journals of most branches of social science, particularly
sociology and political science, reveals the degree to which polling forms the
methodological basis for a great deal of what these sciences are about. The
study of the fundamentals of politics and governance, race relations, gender
differences, power, status, inequality, sexual behavior, child rearing, health,
and so forth is greatly enhanced by polls that provide insights from large
groups of people. Historians can only drool at the valuable information we would
have if there had been accurate polls throughout history. What did the people of
the Roman Empire really feel about condemning and crucifying Jesus Christ? How
did the French populace feel about Napoleon? Did the people of France and
England wholeheartedly support the idea of opposing the Germans in the trenches
of World War I? Did the people of Japan support the expansionist dreams of their
government in the 1930s and early 1940s? Did the Chinese people support Mao
Tse-tung or Chiang Kai-shek? Even in recent years, scholars wonder what the
people who live in countries with totalitarian regimes think about their leaders
and the structure of their societies.
In the most general sense, the basis for science is measurement and
description. That’s exactly what polling does: it measures and describes the
feelings, opinions, and projected behavior of the people living in specific
social groups. Polling provides us a way of summarizing or typifying human
societies based on what the people who live in those societies think and feel.
Polling is thus an invaluable tool for those interested in studying humans and
the ways in which they organize themselves and live their lives.
1. Edward E. Jones and Harold B. Gerard, Foundations of Social Psychology
(New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967), 312.
2. Leon Festinger, “Informal Social Communication,” in Classic
Contributions to Social Psychology, ed. Edwin P. Hollander and Raymond G.
Hunt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 340.
3. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000),
Copyright © 2004 by The Gallup Organization