Why Polls Fail

[by Kaia Roquist]

Lately two referendums have given final results pointing in the opposite direction than predicted by polls. Both for Brexit and US Presidential Election the predictions failed, despite large sample sizes, multiple combined polls, advanced algorithms, and monitoring over time.

Following discussions present and explore different reasons for the failure of polls – and theories and critics are passed in different directions. But what if the real challenge here is more complex than algorithms.

Every day we make numerous decisions. Tying your shoes and checking what time it is, typing your name, squint when light is too sharp. If we were to consider all pros and cons for each decision to make, our “internal software” would have been overloaded instantly. Therefore, we are beautifully designed to store experience and learnings fore easier decision-making. Our knowledge and experience throughout life builds a solid platform for automatic decision-making. The automatic system is often referred to as feelings, and stands for 90% of our decisions. This ensures quick, effortless decisions based on previous experience. A classic example is speaking your mother tongue – you may speak while you’re poring a glass of water and instantly knowing that the glass is easier to drink from if it is not too full.

Then comes the 10% deductive decisions made by the reflective system. These decisions are effortful and slow, and includes a controlled and aware focus on pros and cons. Like choosing learning a foreign language, or choosing a new password for your laptop. These processes demand our controlled focus, decisions demand effort and take time.

So why did polls and predictions fail in Brexit and the US President election?

When surveys are done, the question “what will you vote?” pops up and sounds easy and plain – as if we asked “tea or coffee?”. Consequently, we trigger the automatic and intuitive decision-making, and the answer is given accordingly.

However, when entering the polling station, the reflective and deductive focus kicks in. Where to register, in what order to do the formalities, where is the voting-slip to be found? And finally which box to tick off. The reflective decision-making is working continuously, and pros and cons are weighted carefully – which may give a different outcome than a quick “on top of the head” decision made earlier the same day.

In many cases, the gut feeling is a good guide in life – after all it is based on your previous experiences. That having said, there is also a good reason for why we have the reflective system. So take your time and listen to pros and cons when facing important decisions.

When sense and sensibility is not aligned, there should come up a warning sign. These are the crossroads where we will have to use a lot of effort to understand why we feel different than we reason.

Never underestimate or ignore your gut feeling – it is there for a reason. But do take your time to analyse arguments presented and consider different angles. Complex decisions demand deductive focus.

And for future election campaigns and polls: Keep the election battles sober and respectful, and stay out of collision course with feelings and reasoning – software collisions may give unpredicted outcomes.

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