Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Gallup Poll--my testament

I was polled by Gallup this afternoon. Has this ever happened to you? It's the first time for me, to the best of my recollection. I found it to be a somewhat disconcerting experience. In the first place, I'm kind of surprised I agreed to participate, and in the second that I agreed to continue. Perhaps it's just the nature of polls, but reflecting back on it, I felt somewhat manipulated. But I suppose this is the problem with all multiple choice question formats--you rarely get to say exactly what you want.

I decided to look into the Gallup Poll after the call, and wasn't surprised to learn it had been created by a man named George Gallup in 1935. I was a bit surprised, though, that according to Wikipedia, Gallup, Inc. was purchased from Gallup's heirs four years after he died by a company called Selection Research International, who wanted to buy the 'brand' to give their polling more credibility and therefore increase the number of responses it got. (Hey, it worked on me.)

As I suppose is the nature of any reliable poll, the questions are precise, and are meant to be answered in a specific sort of way. So when I was asked if the pollster was speaking to the oldest resident of the house who was over eighteen and I said I'm over eighteen and I live here alone, that wasn't acceptable. Apparently pollsters are not allowed to use the process of deduction, not even of the simplest kind.

Although I suppose most of the questions gave a fair number of options, the first one that relied on opinion rather took me aback. It was something along the lines of, Do you approve of Barack Obama's presidency or disapprove? Although most of the other questions had choices that were more nuanced, so that you could say "somewhat", or "somewhat not", this one was strictly a two choice question. I said I approve, because I'm not in the camp of his haters, but there are plenty of his decisions that I don't care for. Did I ever tell you about the time he bailed in his pre-presidential days as key note speaker for my cousin's fundraising dinner for at risk kids with almost no notice? Yeah, we've had a rocky relationship ever since.

The personal questions were the hardest--not because they were so invasive, or any more so than anything of this type is, but because I don't really fit into the boxes so well right now. Am I unemployed or retired? How much do I make a month? How many hours did I work last week? Do I wish I could work more? These are all a bit subjective or variable. When I said that my income varies from month to month, the pollster invited me to 'take a guess'. I did. He didn't specify how wild a guess it could be.

I found the pollster to be patient and polite, but the experience  was ever so slightly irritating. So I was rather surprised at the end that, when he asked if someone could call me back with more questions, I said yes, rather than the more truthful "No". He asked me for a first name. "Seana," I said.

I even told him how to spell it.


  1. Interesting experience. I just get surveys about how likely I am to purchase symphony tickets for Beethoven's Ninth. What about how likely for Beethoven's 9th? What about for Symphony No. 9 in D Minor? How likely to purchase tickets for "Ode To Joy"? Then at the end I fill in my income. Duh, that's why I don't buy symphony tickets. Sigh.

  2. I think the San Francisco opera is trying that ploy too, except I can't confirm because I never open the emails.

    I also been asked within the last few years to be a "Neilsen family" for a week. By comparison, the Neilsen people were downright bossy. On the other hand, they did send me a dollar, if I recall rightly.

  3. Seana you are on the A list! Thanks for this very interesting post. I have always wondered about Gallup since it seems to be considered the gold standard. Though now with so many polls out there, who knows. You've validated my suspicions though that these are not scientific by any means and actually don't and can't accurately determine the pulse of the nation.

  4. Kathleen, thanks for verifying that, as I was thinking it surely couldn't be that little. But I remember laughing with a friend that it cost them 45 cents to mail it.

  5. Julie--well, I don't know about the A list, because the whole thing is designed to be very randomized. They apparently contact a thousand people a day, and the person who is polling you doesn't know who he or she is calling. They have to ask you for your zip code at one point. When you think of a thousand a day in a country of so many millions, it's not too surprising that this is the first time I was ever called.

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  7. In the absence of news, polls and stories built around them perform a vital service in filling space that would otherwise go empty in American newspapers. Poll vocabulary rolls glibly off our lips, though few of us know what it means.

    You probably have an idea of what margin of error is, but do you know how it's calculated? I don't. I have discussed with the most statistics-savvy of our reporters a form in which we might convey that knowledge to readers.

    I'll get back to you.

  8. Yes, I think many of my hesitancies about llmy answers are probably already factored in the mix. However, I still feel uncomfortable with idea that the questions led me to say not exactly what I meant, and for that reason, I doubt I'll be answering any more such questions in the future.

    I also had an unsettling feeling that, though this was almost certainly completely legit, I was just a little too willing to go along with the program. I never thought I'd be gullible enough to be taken in by a phone fraudster, but now I have my doubts, as one thing so easily leads to another.