Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Do You Know Your Own Mind - Or Do You Just Think You Do?

Last week, I presented you with two surveys.  After taking them, you will have realized that you were on both sides on the issue examined.

How could that be?

 Because I cheated!  That's how.  

Those surveys were designed to ensure that:

  • You had no idea what the survey was for when the survey began
  • By the time you reached the final question, you understood the logic for answering in the affirmative to the final question posed in the survey without first having had the topic itself specifically introduced
  • You agreed with each of the generalized statements that were made leading up to the final question
  • These statements actually served to subtly outline an argument rather than to seek your genuine opinion
  • When asked the final question, it would be awkward to respond in the negative as it would apparently contradict your sentiments up to this point
  • You have said "Yes" to every answer leading up to the final question - it is therefore more difficult to say "No" after agreeing so consistently - especially when it would make you look confused or incompetent to the person administering the survey

Now, in the instance of these surveys, the above formula is laid bare for you - largely because you got to take both surveys one after the other.  But the trouble is that when a survey is administered in an apparently unbiased and clinical atmosphere, the fact that the respondent has been influenced within the body of the survey is not so obvious to either party. 

In these cases, it is actually possible that a respondent may walk away believing that the opinion they were forced to build and defend is one which they actually hold.

Why is this so dangerous? 

Simply put, in a human society, we have learned through successive generations that we must conform in order to thrive.  This is why the order of law is so successful - because we as individual participants agree to cooperate with it.  Primitive man learned early on that his odds of survival are better in a group than on his own.  To survive within a group means cooperating with and accepting different ideas within the group.

So, again - why are these deceptive surveys so dangerous?

The answer is that if you can convince an individual that everyone else holds an opinion in conflict with their own, you can often get that individual to capitulate and conform to this previously incompatible belief.

Therefore, if you can tell the individuals that comprise the crowd what everyone else thinks, you can control their perceptions and, consequently, how they behave.  You can essentially control the crowd.

I know that this sounds far fetched.  So, I'll invite you to try it for yourself.

The next time you go out to lunch with your friends, pick out where you want to eat.  Then, when you invite each friend individually, tell them that all the others in attendance want to eat at this restaurant.  Each will agree to go there, not wanting to be the odd man out of the group.  They will also reason that the decision has little implication and is therefore not worth making any disturbance.  However, they will still be spending their  own hard-earned money at this establishment, even if they do not particularly like the food or the service or ambience.  If you want to see how strong this need to conform is, pick an appallingly expensive restaurant with terrible food or service - there certainly are plenty to choose from - and watch your friends conform anyway.

The trouble with many of these types of surveys is that they will publish only the answer to the last question, leading readers to believe that the question was asked in a vacuum and consequently represents a genuinely clear snapshot of current opinion.

And guess what?  If you happened to see those survey results, this new information colors your perception of your place in the group around you...and how you behave subsequently.

Now, last week, I promised that we would take a look at how these surveys were created.

Here are the surveys as they were originally written:

Please read through the following set of questions, and answer each honestly:

This was changed to make each answer only YES or NO.  This limited the respondent to choosing the option they most agreed with.

Would you find it offensive if another person tried to force their system of beliefs upon you?

Do you believe that you are smart enough to make decisions that are in your own best interests?

Do you think that the government knows better than you do what is right for you and your body?

This question was rephrased to ensure that the answer would always be a "Yes" rather than a "No", as each respondent should consistently answer in the affirmative with each passing question.  Any question that requires the respondent to answer "No" will interfere with the flow of the argument and will increase the odds that they answer in the negative to the final question posed.

Do you think that the government will take away your personal liberties if they have a pretext for doing so?

This question was altered in order to guarantee a response.  The word "will" was changed to "may" as the first implies an absolute, while the latter implies a possibility.  Absolutes are rarely plausible, while to deny that anything is possible is rarely advisable.

Do you support a governmental nanny state in which state and federal laws dictate to you how you can live your life?

Would you support the legalization of a soft drug like marijuana?

You will note that a transition question was inserted in the survey just prior to the final question.  It addressed the legitimacy and validity of lawmakers to create decisions.  The final question was also changed to imply that the medical industry supported the move to legalize marijuana, and added caveats that ensured the protection of vulnerable parties.

Now that we've taken a look at the first survey, cast your eye over the original copy of the second survey:

Please read through the following set of questions, and answer each honestly.

Do you believe that the decisions of others can create negative effects more broadly in society?

With the proven carcinogenic properties of second-hand smoke, would you want yourself of your non-smoking loved ones to be exposed to second hand smoke?

Did you know that marijuana is five times as carcinogenic as tobacco?

Do you agree that the most important role of a government is to protect its citizens?

Would you oppose the legalization of so-called "soft drugs" like marijuana?

Can you determine what changes were made and why?

Next week, we'll visit this topic one last time.



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