Survey Data: Mind the Biases

A Survey

If you are carrying out a research, you should know that numbers may lie. Learn the causes of those mistakes and find out how to avoid them.

A Desire to Seem Better

When a people are talking with a Sociology expert, they often try to show themselves in the best possible light, meaning to provide the expert with the expected answers. If the people, who surround a certain respondent, give a positive evaluation to the certain events, the respondent will do their best to join their way of thinking, and in case there is a social taboo on something, they will not disclose their true point of view. That is why the research data on the most sensitive topics (the material status, sexual behavior, drug addiction or voting on elections) tend to show the higher results concerning the answers, which are socially approved, and vice versa.

Proud Person

Theory of the Spiral of Silence

In 1970s a German expert in Political Science Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann introduced the theory of the silence spiral. According to it, mass media, especially biased ones, contribute to so-called “dominant way of thinking”, i.e. way of thinking, which is approved by the majority, what makes it more authoritative. A person, who belongs to the minority and needs an outer support, will try to silent their position because of the fear of a social isolation. On the other hand, a person, who shares its opinion with the majority, will want to tell it publicly. The results of social surveys contribute to the formation of the dominant way of thinking. The more rarely the ideas of minorities are talked about, the less people who support it publicly remain, and the more challenging task it becomes. The spiral works until the complete silence of the minority representatives.

Universal Character of the Theory

The theory of a silence spiral often gets criticized for the lack of empirical basis, claiming that it works only for the anti-democratic regimes. However, the evidence shows the opposite. Look at the phenomenon of Donald Trump, who is famous for the mean and radical claims, which contradict the norms of American political correctness. According to the web surveys, he takes up to 38% votes, and according to the interviewing, the percentage goes down to 32%.

Influence of the Flag

There is also a so-called Bradley effect: due to the political correctness, people claimed to support a colored candidate, when on practice they voted for the white one. Furthermore, taking part in elections contributes to the biased results. The national symbols and the atmosphere of the situation creates an impression of the person being a part of a state mechanism, so they vote for the party, which is at power against the inner political views.

Instruments: A Simple Trick

There are a lot of instruments you can use if you want your survey results to be more true-to-life. First of all, you should use the techniques, which support the maximal anonymity during the answers on the sensitive topics. Let’s say you need to evaluate the domestic abuse within a group of men in a room. Hardly a person will rise a hand if he hears a question whether the domestic abuse is present in his house. However, you may ask everyone to flip a coin, so you can ask men, who got tails and/or faced a domestic abuse to raise their hands. Let’s say 58 out of 100 men raised their hands. As the possibility of getting a tail is 50%, we can know that roughly 50% of men raised their hands due to the coincidence, and the other 8% answered positively. Taking into account that there can be men, who got involved into domestic abuse and got heads after flipping the coin, the amount could be around 16%.

Flip a Coin

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