The (Not So) Infallible Polls
Donald Trump’s tsunami victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton left most people distraught, flat-footed and trying hard to adapt to the unexpected.
Students at some of the top US Universities have been so emotionally shook up that they couldn’t attend classes but spent the day coloring and playing with Play-Doh instead.
Companies that relied on polls’ predictions to make business decisions found themselves in embarrassing and altogether hilarious situations.
One such incident happened at the Grévin Museum in France, where sculptor Stéphane Barret was commissioned to create a Hillary Clinton’s statue as part of its American presidents’ collection. An image of the almost finished statue was released on Twitter, one day before the elections. The museum’s manager had based his decision on the polls’ predictions, unaware that they might be deceiving.
Their prediction for the 45th American president was just as wrong as every forecaster’s in the public record.
As you know, the day before the 2016 US Presidential Election, 12 pollsters, statistical models and media agencies predicted Hillary’s chances of winning at greater than 90%. This is not counting the countless tweets, Facebook posts and private beliefs.
Today, there’s only one question on everyone’s lips: How could such a monumental goof-up happen?
Up until now public-opinion surveys and election forecasts were quasi reliable when predicting the outcome of other presidential races. So, over the years we’ve become accustomed to them and have thus trusted their results implicitly.
But when traditional political forecasting fails what can we do? Who or what do we turn to?
Sometimes, asking a question and expecting to elicit deep, ultimately personal truths is simply not working. At best, it barely scratches the surface. There are several reasons for that.
If everything boiled down to rational decision-making, then we wouldn’t be here.
But it doesn’t. To find out how this happened we need to go beyond what people say explicitly and plunge into the non-conscious inner workings of the brain.
Take emotions as an example. They are critical in decision-making, yet they operate below the level of consciousness and rational thinking. Fear, trust and hope are all powerful motivators that influence our political choice and yet none of them are rational constructs. Practically, this means that emotions aren’t always accessible to the conscious mind and are certainly not easy to express verbally.
Another fact worth considering is that people don't always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that they don’t always ‘know their minds’ either. Therefore, it is quite possible that many of Trump’s sympathizers, also known as the “silent secret Trump voters”, didn’t even show up in those forecasts.
From a neuroscientific point of view, this is highly probable.
We believe that if a different polling tool had been used, such as an implicit association test instead of the traditional surveys, we could’ve learned about people’s non-conscious, deeper attitudes and emotions.
Social psychologists first identified this rational-emotional divergence several decades ago and meanwhile developed a very useful and brilliant tool, called Implicit Association Test (IAT), which relies on time reaction to assess someone’s emotional implicit valence towards a given stimulus. Therefore, when participants are prompted with political candidates or their messages, we measure participants’ implicit attitudes or emotions. The beauty of it is that we can afterwards compare peoples’ declarative answers with their non-conscious attitudes. Not surprisingly, there is almost each time a gap between what participants declare versus what their non-conscious “tells” researchers.
This gap is, we believe, the reason why polls predictions were so far off from the truth. Both candidates for the presidency have had campaigns that stirred a wide range of deep emotions and attitudes that Americans were not aware of or wiling to disclose until the very end. Even more, with declarative surveys, pollsters could only get a snapshot of the temporary state of mind that voters had and wanted to be on record. In other words, their answers were already consciously filtered and biased, all the while the truth completely eluded everyone.
At Buyer Brain, we’ve personalized and applied IAT to reveal consumers’ and employees’ real emotions and attitudes towards brands, products, managers, organizational culture and values, accurately identifying a gap between declarative versus non-declarative answers. If you want to find out more about how you can avoid an unpleasant polling or survey surprise, contact us or read more.