Opinion polling: what’s on your mind?

The science of opinion polling is becoming ever more refined, providing a pinpoint snapshot of attitudes for businesses and governments to use in the service of their customers and citizens. Vision reports

“Did you experience happiness during much of the day yesterday?” “Are you planning on starting your own business in the next 12 months?” These are just some of the questions asked in the annual Gallup International poll, which has served as a barometer of the planet’s social and economic climate since 1947.

According to the latest end of year survey, the world is more optimistic about 2014 than it was about 2013. It also discovered that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the US is one of the most desirable countries to live in alongside Canada and Australia. Furthermore, over one third of people believe the world would be a better place if there were more female politicians, but how accurate are these polls in predicting the future?

Arguably, Halloween masks can predict the result of the US Presidential election more accurately than polls. Since 1980, when Ronald Reagan masks outsold Jimmy Carter’s, Halloween mask sales have been used to predict the outcome of the US election, astonishingly with a 100 per cent success rate.

This is just one of many ‘straw poll’ examples that Americans, and American businesses, use to try to predict their future leader. Over the years, the popularity of the First Lady’s cookie recipes, the number of coffee cups sold with candidates faces on, and even the best hairstyle, have all been indicators of the eventual outcome.

Popular vote

But since the first recorded straw poll in 1824, the ‘popular vote’ hasn’t always been so reliable. Conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian newspaper, the first poll showed Andrew Jackson leading John Quincy Adams by 335 votes to 169 in the US Presidential election. A glance through a history book would suggest the poll was wrong, as Adams went on to be elected president in 1825.

However, the poll proved to be an accurate gauge of American opinion: 41.4 per cent of the votes went to Jackson. But as neither candidate won a majority of electoral votes, the election was passed into the House of Representatives. Jackson subsequently lost to Adams and it became the first election where the winning candidate was not the winner of the ‘popular vote’.

America would have to wait for more than 100 years before a consistently reliable poll was established by Dr George Gallup. In 1936, he correctly predicted that Franklin D Roosevelt would defeat Alfred Landon, contradicting other polls. When his prediction came true, national newspapers syndicated the poll results and Gallup became the name synonymous with surveys and polls, particularly for election results. Since then, Gallup Inc has tracked public attitudes globally on almost every political, social and economic issue.

While the political polls made Gallup’s name, the most interesting insights can lie in differing trends over time, particularly for happiness and wellbeing. Mohamed Younis, Senior Analyst at Gallup Inc, notes that Gallup’s biggest strength is the statistics it has compiled over the decades. He suggests that one of the most important insights into a population is its society’s perception of their lives and how changes can indicate future problems.

“We saw life evaluation plummet in Tunisia and Egypt, despite their macro-economic gains just prior to social unrest breaking out in both countries,” explains Younis.

Using the current employment climate in the MENA region as an example, Younis explains: “What’s important is to keep in mind that in many instances perception drives behaviour, which in turn creates reality.” MENA survey respondents often cite a government job as their preferred employment sector, despite their nation’s economy employing millions of people.

“If you prefer a government job because you have been told that is more reliable and more feasible, your behaviour will necessarily drive you to miss out on other opportunities within one’s own national economy,” Younis adds.

Contributing factors

So is it possible to use these examples to predict similar outcomes elsewhere? Pat Thompson, Managing Director of Thompson Dunn Business Psychologists, notes that the response to changes in society will differ for citizens in different countries. Bad news, says Thompson, “doesn’t cheer people up, that’s for sure. But culturally, because of the dynamics of the particular marketplace, the responses will be different.”

Advising international companies for 25 years, Thompson has helped clients through the peaks and troughs of the economic cycle. “Business is cyclical, it’s not a straight line. There are good times and bad times. In bad times, managers pull back, have to make redundancies, but they also have to remain optimistic,” Thompson suggests. If any conclusions or decisions are to be made on general statistics such as the Gallup Inc world poll, Thompson suggests further surveys are needed.

“Most companies do an employee satisfaction scale internally,” she explains. “It will be interesting to look at whether the internal results correlate with something like Gallup, which is looking at global sentiment.”

Perhaps the most interesting development it has discovered over the decades is a global shift away from the good of the world to something closer to home. Mohamed Younis cites this as one of Gallup Inc’s most important findings in its 80 years as a survey institution: the discovery that there is now only one true universal desire.

“What everybody really wants is a good job,” says Younis. “It used to be that people wanted world peace or freedom of religion, but today the one thing that almost all individuals around the world have in common is a desire to have a good job that gives them a chance at bettering their lives and the lives of those they care about.”