On What We Tell Pollsters

Barry Lam’s podcast Hi-Phi Nation has a new episode on “information silos” and what we tell pollsters. Partway through the episode, I am briefly interviewed about the nature of belief.

Lam is always fun, and the episode has a few twists you might not expect. One theme throughout the episode is a critique of the view generally accepted as implicit background in polling and in popular reports of poll results: that people tell pollsters what they actually believe. Lam explores an empirical challenge to this and a more philosophical challenge.

Empirical challenge: People who feel uncertain might answer by "cheerleading" for their side, Republicans for example simply saying whatever they think will make Trump look good, Democrats saying whatever they think makes Trump look bad. If this is going on, when the incentives are changed (for example by paying respondents for right answers, including a smaller payment for admitting that they don’t know), they might instead reveal their true opinion. Even if they are not uncertain, they might simply lie to the pollster, saying what they plainly know to be false, to help or express support for their side.

A more philosophical challenge explores the question of what it is, really, to have a political, or politically loaded, belief. On some questions, there might not be a single straightforward fact about what you believe, hidden in a “secret compartment”, which you choose either to reveal or not reveal to the pollster. On climate change, or racial equality, or on what accommodations society owes to people with disabilities, you might be inclined to answer one way in one context or to one audience, and in quite a different way in another context or to another audience; you might wager thus-and-so when X is at stake, but quite differently when Y is at stake; your spontaneous reactions and your more guarded reactions might splinter in different directions; and so on. Among all these various thoughts and reactions, there needn’t be some privileged set that reflects your true belief while others are somehow misleading or inauthentic.

That, at least, is my view of belief. If you are sufficiently splintered, fragmented, or in-betweenish in your dispositional profile, then what you tell pollsters, even sincerely, will be only one element of a complicated picture. If what you say is misaligned with some other aspects of your speech and behavior, you might be merely cheerleading or lying, but you needn’t necessarily be. You might be answering as sincerely as you can, with the fragment of you that is called forth at the moment.

Full episode here.

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