Science falters on the impact of opinion polls

Science Weekend Ticket With Mathilde Fontes, Editor-in-Chief of the New Scientific Journal, EpsilonToday, he raises the topic of surveys that appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century.

France Info: There is a lot of debate about the reliability of opinion polls, but then, can they influence voters? Science finds it difficult to answer…

Mathilde Fontes: Yes… sometimes science falters. And there, this is already the case. However, the effect of opinion polls on the voter vote is an old question. It has been studied since the advent of opinion polls at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it arises even more today, when we are in a frenzy.

There were already more than 60 ballots for the 2022 presidential election in France. There were 560, in total, for the 2017 presidential election. This is the case in all Western democracies. The study identified the phenomenon in Great Britain : Since 1945 the number of polls has increased by 50!

What effects can it have on voting?

Four main effects have been identified and are being studied. There is the so-called “cart effect”: the good old fashioned trend that we have to stick with prevailing opinion, and thus vote for the top candidate in the polls.

But there is also the opposite: out of sympathy for the younger, lesser-known candidates, we may be tempted to vote for them. There is a “help vote” effect: you give up your favorite candidate to choose another close relative who has a better chance of winning.

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And there is an impact on participation: polls may discourage us from going to vote… Except that for the four effects, the studies give very poor results, which actually mean nothing. or contradictory results.

How is that explained?

In fact, it is very difficult to study opinion polls. We can compare it, after the fact, to the results of the vote, but it is a bit like a fish biting its own tail. And the researchers find it difficult to develop experiments to study the phenomenon in the lab, in a controlled way: the role we put the participants in is always too artificial, too caricatured.

The worst part is that they give very low results, when this type of test usually highlights the effects.

These tests are endless…

They concluded, but very weakly. For example, a large 10-year study in 7 countries of nearly 23,000 people published last month showed very little favourite in polls, but it’s still in the wrong bar. So scientifically, it doesn’t show anything.

Finally, the most notable effect is the effect on journalists – yes, we feel a bit targeted. So not in the voting, but in the way they handle the news: pollsters push to cover elections in horse-racing style, to say who will win or lose ground, not to mention the bottom.

And there is still a proven effect that affects everyone. It is a conviction that opinion polls do not affect us. We all tend to think that they only have an impact on others.

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