Junkfood Science: Measuring us or trying to shape us?

January 02, 2007

Measuring us or trying to shape us?

Plastered across media last week were reports saying: “Most Americans want public policies to prevent obesity.” A telephone survey of 1,129 adults was reported to have found that 85% of Americans supported taxpayer-funded government tax breaks for employers who offered workplace gyms, 73% supported government tax breaks for employers who charge more for health insurance to employees who don’t follow “healthy lifestyles and lose weight,” and 72% said they wanted government policies requiring insurance companies to cover weight loss “treatments and preventions programs.”

Lead researcher Bernard Fuemmeler, an assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C., said: “This study provides tangible evidence that people support wide-scale policy changes that can affect obesity.”

You are right to be skeptical that so many of your fellow citizens actually want their employers and government to be managing their body weights and private lifestyles. What you’re reading is not science, but classic marketing.

Opinion polls and surveys are a well-worn technique used by the most successful public relations firms and advertisers to create the bandwagon effect, sell an idea, create a demand for something and shape public opinion.

The bandwagon effect comes from the phrase “hop on the bandwagon,” referring to old time political campaigns where supporters would show their support by climbing onto a candidate’s bandwagon in a parade. It has come to describe the tendency of people to adopt trends and ideas simply because they’re popular and sound good. People naturally feel more comfortable going along with what everyone else is doing and believing, the groupthink. In doing so, they’re freed from having to understand the complexities of an issue or risk having to defend themselves, because it’s the majority opinion. And when everyone else believes something, people tend to believe it must be correct and true.

Taking advantage of the bandwagon effect is one of the most common tactics in advertising where they try and sell something by convincing us of its popularity. Creating a popular trend makes it even more attractive.

The bandwagon effect is used to sell products and services, but is probably best known for its role in politics to sell agendas and candidates. Political science researchers have shown in experiments that people rally to the majority opinion when they’re told the direction of public views. The bandwagon effect is also common throughout the history of medicine, according to Dr. Layton Rikkers, professor and chair of the surgical department at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, and editor-in-chief of the Annals of Surgery. He said it’s how unproven, non-evidence based, but popular therapies have been overwhelmingly accepted.

And the media, by publishing news about the strength or popularity of a political candidate, public policy or health belief, actually contributes to shaping the public’s expectations about the likely outcome, said Rudiger Schmitt-Beck, assistant professor of political science at the University of Mannheim in Germany. “These expectations in turn stimulate the bandwagon effect,” he said, influencing people’s choices and votes. After analyzing the media content and survey data during Germany’s first national elections, he found public opinion polls played the key role in what he referred to as the “low information rationality” of the bandwagon effect.

A report of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University examining the impact of public opinion polls, found that even the best journalists are “babes in the woods” when they cover a political campaign and step “into a world in which the opinion researchers, advertising strategists, public relations packagers, have been working day and night for the preceding year or two or three under the prod of competition to find new and better ways to sell an idea, create a demand, understand a market.” Even the Graduate School of Political Management in New York features an advanced academic study in polling, political management of the media, campaign advertising and promotion, demographic targeting, and “using polling information and orchestration of the news.” A study by Gary Orren at Harvard found that about half of the political stories in major newspapers the three weeks prior to a presidential election were citing poll results.

As Bill Kovach, Nieman Foundation curator and a former editor at the New York Times, explained, public opinion surveys are actually recording select, private opinions and few examine the depth of understanding behind an opinion or its context. But polls don’t just measure opinions, they shape them. Kovach concluded:

I am afraid, the press is unwittingly a part of the process of manipulating opinion devised by the political campaigns....in the absence of strong and sustained reporting on the facts underlying an issue, polls can and do shape and create opinion.

The outcome of polls are determined by the polling process itself. And it’s enormously easy to manipulate polls to create any consensus the pollsters want to promote, by how the questions are worded, who the pollsters select to interview and how they ask the questions, and how the results are interpreted (spun). People are asked to choose from choices that have been prepared for them, hence the poll creators are defining the issue, and the results depend on the exact phrasing of the questions and how the choices are arranged. By restricting choices and the possibilities and preferences they elicit, polls lead people and are better viewed as “guided” choices, said Herbert Schiller, author of The Mind Managers. As he wrote:

Those who pay the pollsters commonly influence the scope of ideas and attitudes deemed worthy of consideration....Those who dominate governmental decision-making and private economic activity are the main supports of the pollsters. The vital needs of these groups determine, intentionally or not, the parameters within which polls are formulated.

People who may not care or ever thought about a pollster’s questions may just answer to be polite, said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in the Brookings Governance Studies program. “That gives pollsters a lot of running room to ‘manufacture’ opinion, especially on issues of narrow rather than wide concern.” In doing so, they can turn a minor issue into a perceived public crisis.

When interest groups commission pollsters to ask leading questions to gather "scientific" proof that the public agrees with whatever demand they are making on government, they demean polling and mislead the public. When analysts, sometimes innocently, use poll numbers as a definitive guide to public opinion even on issues to which most people have given little thought, they are writing fiction more than citing fact. When political consultants use information gathered through polling and focus groups to camouflage their clients' controversial policies with soothing, symbol-laden, and misleading rhetoric, they frustrate democratic deliberation.

Polls are always utilized for marketing...something. Pollsters want the public to know the results of their polls for a reason. They shape our perceptions of how people think, and our own attitudes and decisions at every level of our culture.

Last week’s poll trying to convince us that everyone thinks there should be more involvement of our government and employers to “stem the rising tide of obesity,” came from the American College of Preventive Medicine. It is a national trade organization of doctors in preventive medicine and is “the national leader in health promotion research, policies, practices, and programs.” Many of the 2,000 members serve on national forums, committees and task forces, and the ACPM is a member of special interest policy groups such as the Partnership for Prevention and National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity. Naturally, members benefit from the promotion of obesity treatments, and preventive health and wellness programs.

If you are tempted to believe that this latest poll is true and correct, remember that the popularity of an idea is never proof of its validity. The National Science Foundation illustrated that in its 2001 examination of the public’s attitudes and understanding of science. Polls showed that at least half of Americans believe in haunted houses, ghosts, faith healing and communication with the dead, and two thirds believed in extrasensory perception (ESP).

As Mann said, polls are writing science fiction, not gathering “scientific” evidence.

© Sandy Szwarc 2007

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