Pros and cons of public opinion polls – Jason Robert Jaffe

Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Jessica Ruby We are constantly asked for our opinions. Which team do you think will win the Super Bowl? Who wore it better on the red carpet? Who are you going to vote for for mayor? Public opinion polls are everywhere. Important decision makers in American government have long relied on public opinion polls throughout elections and important legislation. The problem is public opinion isn’t easy to track and, often times, isn’t even right. In 1948, theChicago Daily Tribuneran a now famous headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman,” they cried in big, bold, black and white letters. The problem is that Dewey hadn’t defeated Truman. TheTribunehad relied on polls to come to their conclusion. Whoops! This happens all the time because public opinion polls are either inaccurate or misleading. So, why are they wrong? And why do we keep using them? First, let’s start with an important term: sample. A sample is the group of people that respond to questions during a public opinion poll. A poll’s quality rests largely on its sample, and a sample can be bad in a few key ways. It can be too small, too narrow, or the poll itself can be too difficult. Polls that are too small are bad for obvious reasons. And while you can’t possibly ask every single person in America for their opinion, the more people you ask, the more accurate your prediction. Polls that are too narrow, that only ask a certain type of person a question, are bad, too. Consider a poll about whether or not the potato is the best vegetable in America. If you only asked people in Idaho, where the state food is the potato, chances are that you would get a much different answer than if you asked people in the state of New Mexico, where the state vegetable is beans. Getting the right kind of diversity in your sample means making sure that your sample has a range of ages, races, genders, and geographic regions, just to name a few. Finally, polls that are too hard can’t tell you much either. If you’re asking people for their opinions on things about which they have no prior knowledge, the results will be pointless. You’re better off shaking a Magic 8 ball. It’s not just the people you’re asking that can cause bias, though. The person doing the asking is part of the problem, too. That’s called interviewer bias. Interviewer bias is all about the effect that the person asking the questions has on the sample. Humans generally don’t like confrontation. People worry that their answers may make them look bad. Therefore, we find that people tend to give socially desirable responses, not necessarily their honest opinions, because they don’t want to come across as heartless, racist, or bigoted. And the way we word our questions matters too. When polls purposely sway the answers one way or the other, it’s called a push poll because it pushes people to answer a certain way. “Would you vote for candidate Smith?” is a perfectly normal question. “Would you vote for candidate Smith if you knew that he robs senior citizens?” is a push poll. So, if polls are open to all sorts of manipulation and inaccuracies, why are they still so prevalent? Despite their flaws, public opinion polls provide us with some sense of the thoughts and moods of large groups of people. They offer politicians the chance to pass legislation they think a majority of Americans will support. They help fashionistas on TV know which star wore the dress better on the red carpet. Finally, they make us, the people who get polled, feel as though our voice has been heard. So, next time you get a phone call asking your opinion, or if you see a poll online, take some time to think about who is asking and why they’re asking. Then, take that poll, and its results, with a grain of salt or a potato.

About the author


  1. These videos need to start being more universal rather than just on America. I like America but the rest of the world cannot relate to something and it is narrowing the audience.

  2. I have to agree with you I am Australian, so at first I found them interesting, but now after so many of them focusing on America (and a large amount of them being about the political environment in some way) it starts to get tiresome.

  3. This isn't about America; It's about polls in general, they just used America as an example of where the poll was being held in.

  4. no prior knowledge, you mean like mentioning Evolution in America when most are a bunch of die-hard Christians without even basic knowledge of biology even after virtually the entire planet is trying to press it through their thick frickin' skulls the difference between facts and opinions

  5. America! Land of the opinion poll.

    It was totally a coy reference to what happens if your poll is too narrow and only talks about America.

  6. i think they should give us identification codes unique to us, a one-time redeemable vote on each issue – we can freepost, use on the internet, text etc etc., and actually give the whole country a say, so we can directly give opinions – rather than vote for politicians who then make all the decisions for us – there's no need, and it's un-democratic. In such an interconnected world, it's actually possible for the first time…

  7. representative democracy, is democratic and better.

    Your idea would just induce chaos. put it this way, if we made a vote for every new tax, and a vote for every new spending cut, America, would be like California!

    Representatives are accountable, unlike the ever flipflopping citizen, who can change his mind, without anyone giving a damn.

    Representatives, makes decisions after being sought out by various interest groups, and have to relate all measures, with the reality they are in.

  8. Hi Conor. Thx for the input! TED-Ed vids are based on real lessons delivered by real teachers throughout the world. All lessons/educators are discovered via an open nomination system on the TED-Ed website. This lesson was nominated by an American History teacher. We'd love to help visualize lessons that relate to all regions/nations around the world, but in year one of TED-Ed we haven't seen a ton of of nominations to that regard. Can you all help us change that? Nom. link at end of every vid!

  9. Seems like most TED-Eds are universal. And this one is about public polls, not America. USA is just an example. Pretty bad ass that my world history teacher or my "Amurica" history teacher could get a lesson animated. Wish everybody would chill out acting like a youtube video is some mega injustice on their mother land, or that mentioning a specific place makes something useless. But I'm all for the metric system though!

  10. "Would you vote for candidate Smith?" is a leading or suggestive question. It shouldn't be used for a poll. "Are you going to vote?" And "Which candidate are you going to vote for?" would be much more useful.

  11. Everyone chill the hell out. Just because America was used as a primary example in this video does not make the video all about America. Sure, it clearly focuses on it, but most of the stuff it talks about applies everywhere, or at the very least isn't exclusive to America.

  12. There isn't world outside America that Americans should know about? This channel seems to be more about collective action, learning, knowledge, and open-mindedness not about nationalism, bias, dogma, and close-mindedness.

  13. The polling techniques are quite general, and the case with the presidential election is generally used as a warning example in the other countries as well. I don't see your point at all. Arbitrarily putting the situation to be in Serbia, would have given this video more authenticity?

  14. In my opinion, opinions shouldn't be considered in regard of governmental issues at all… There is only one right way that system should work, and opinions aren't in there. You can't ask people, because not only they don't have knoweledge, they haven't been taught to think to look objectivelly, and express their neutral opinion.

  15. Here's the explanation why Truman won: The people who did the polls used telephone surveys only. That's general not a problem but back in 1948, only upper class people had telephones who mostly voted for Dewey. Thus, the sample was non-representative and bad. Today's options of doing polls are more sophisticated – question is, if people who create the poll will do it properly.

  16. My comment was not an attack on America. I was just giving advice for TED-ED. I love the videos and watch all of them. have learnt a lot from them. I was just giving them an idea on how to appeal to more people so more people can watch and learn from their videos. Sorry if I caused offence to anyone.

  17. "Are you going to vote?" is a "social desirable"-question. Better is something like "Some people are going to vote, some people are not. Are you going to vote?" or something like that.

  18. Why do you always have such amazing videos (both in animation and structure) and then too often it seems like the sound was recorded with a potato? 😀

  19. Envy? It's not about envy. The problem is voting being social desirable. If someone unknown to you asks you whether you voted, you are likely to say you did.

  20. This video is true for all opinion polls. Just because they used American examples, doesn't mean that this video will only be relevant to America or Americans.

  21. This is very relative to what just happened in the B.C. provincial election. Some are even going as far to say the public opinion polls lost the entire election for the NDP.

  22. Are you going to vote is often the very first question, the problem is most people say yes, yet voter turn out ends up under 50%

  23. Pollsters are smart enough that they have a model of how many people say they are going to vote versus how many actually vote, so this question still has utility.

  24. But you alone are not representative. I can assure you that in a representative 1100 people sample ~75% will say "yes" although voter turnout was only 59%.

  25. There is a fourth problem: People not knowing enough about the issue.

    I've seen polls where people voted for the more expensive solution, because they just couldn't see that the proposed alternative was a lot cheaper. They stuck with what they know, out of fear that change might bring something worse.

    People are not always the best decision-makers. Especially when it comes to details.

  26. I know that, but if they used America and just one other country then that's fine. I have nothing against America. All I meant by my comment was that people appeal to something more when it is universal or relates to them. Lots of the animations have been on America. Such as the good leaders one. They are all very informative and I love watching them. I love TED-ED videos. It was meant to be advice but with the amount of likes it seems like a popular opinion. Maybe they should do a poll on it.

  27. Of course your sampling method has to be reliable and valid. But even if it is, you will get such an outcome if you don't ask in a proper way.

  28. Well, i'm pretty sure America doesn't listen to the people (= Make a poll "Do you want USA to record your movement, track you everywhere you go, listen to what you say without you knowing?" or "Do you want us to stop taking (robing) your money?"

    99% People answer "No", but that doesn't mean America will stop doing that 🙂

  29. yep, polls don't really help politicians pass legislation that the majority of the population will support, it helps them know what to say in public to get them elected and then pass whatever legislation they see fit; cause almost none checks what legislation their representatives effectively support, most people only base their votes on what they see and hear the politicians act and say, on media covered public appearances, especially on the higher levels of governance, like congress/presidency

  30. just replace "serbia" with "the whole world" or "a fictional country" and "authenticity" with "appeal" and the answer would be yes.

  31. You can't relate because they picked US examples? How about 1 of the >140 people who thumbed up this comment change it yourself if you're so concerned about which countries are referenced. Oh that's right, the grand majority of these TED talks are made in America by Americans. Amazes me how people could care about something so trivial.

  32. If you read the comment properly you would see it is advice for TED-ED. They are narrowing their audience and I want them to have a larger audience. I don't have the time to make videos as good as these. However they would have more views if it was a universal example. For example the great leaders one they made. It was a good video but all abut American great leaders. This did not relate to anyone outside of America so there was no connection. A video should connect to all to be good.

  33. Why should the examples matter? They're just examples. For one thing the Truman election was probably the largest shock from a public opinion poll in history and thus rightfully earned its place in this video. Out of all the ways in which we could criticize TED, the most popular is that a particular country is mentioned? It's downright ridiculous.

  34. You live in America so like the American models. However there are a larger audience who would like to see other videos from around the world. I am sure TED would rather be worldwide rather than in just one country. That may have been the biggest in America, other countries will have had other shock opinion polls individual to their country. Is it ridiculous to express your opinion and over 140 others who watched the video?

  35. I can recall watching a lecture a few days ago and I didn't even think about my country not being represented until just now. It's silly but have at it.

  36. I just think it would be nice to appeal to a wider audience so that they can have more views. Not everyone likes American examples. I don't hate them, I would just refer others from time to time. Like the Roman TED-ED video that came up recently; four sisters in ancient Rome. That was a great vid and got 26,000 views. This gto 12,000 not because it is bad but because it did not appeal to a large amount of people like the Rome one.

  37. Opinion polls are something that are utilized by a wide variety of democratic western societies, and the lesson explained statistical principles in an easy to understand and straight forward way.
    I think what Connor was getting at, was that having a state called Idaho that enjoys the potato as its official food is something that most other people from Western democracies cannot relate too, and thus narrows the audience.
    The content is excellent, but the examples are often culturally biased.

  38. Compared with the follow up question involving criminal activity, it does seem like a less suggestive question, but I do agree that it is indeed a leading question in itself.

  39. “What if there’s no such thing as public opinion, because every thinking person has opinions that are uniquely his own? What if what we call public opinion, was just a manufactured narrative that makes it easier to convince people that if their views are different, then there’s something wrong with that, or there’s something wrong with them?” Andrew Napolitano

  40. You're forgetting about people who hate polls and just purposefully give you the opposite answer – I can't possibly be the only one that does that when polled for commercial (or electoral – same crap) stuff … right? Knowledge is power …

  41. You'd have to figure how many people hate opinion polls so much that they'd give such inaccurate answers, though… of course, how would one measure that demographic without using opinion polls? 🙂


    The words “immigration”, “tolerance” and “assimilation” are being used to PROMOTE a program of geNOcide against White children.

    According to International Law, open borders, FORCED integration, and assimilation is GENOCIDE.

    Except they don’t call it GENOCIDE when it’s done to White children.

    Then they call it “multiculturalism”


    Anti-racist is a codeword for anti-White


  43. في حقيقة الأمر سبر أراء عملية استطلاعية لصورة جمهور نحو الموضوع المثير بطريقة موضوعبة ولابد من تحليل أراءهم وخاتصة النفسية منها لأنها تعكس جانب اللاشعوري للجمهور بهذا تعرف الراي العام للجمهور اما مع ام ضد ام غبر مهتم ……. اجابيا ام سلبيا ….

  44. I knew I shouldn't have scrolled down but I did it anyway.

    People were mad at this video because the examples were American? Of course the examples were American. The video was made by an American and produced by an American company. If the video was made by a British person for a British company the examples would probably be British.

    Not that it matters because you didn't need to be American to understand the examples, they were there simply to illustrate the point.

    If some other country was mentioned and Americans started complaining about how they couldn't relate to the video I highly doubt you'd be sympathetic towards them.

  45. I hate when interest groups share polls on social media. They do not give us accurate information as the sample will be biased.

  46. I worked two hours at a company that does polls!! If it was just to get information about issues, they would not ask for you by name! The questions is about politics, how many guns you own, how many in your household and a lot more questions about your opinion about the government!! What I realized working there real quick is they are trying to get as much info about you (that's why they ask for you by name and will only talk to that person, not anyone else in the household) then they sell this information to the NSA or CIA so they can develop a profile about you to deem if you are harmful to American government!! all of a sudden people are wondering how did I get on the no-fly list or terrorist list? DUH!!!!!!!!!! I walked out so fast, I do not want to help anyone spy on US citizen's

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *