Status anxiety

How (and why) we lie to ourselves about opinion polls

Those who tweet favourable results aren’t trying to make them more likely; it’s something else

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

A strange ritual takes place on Twitter most evenings at around 10.30 p.m. Hundreds of political anoraks start tweeting the results of the YouGov daily tracker poll due to be published in the following day’s Sun. Some of them are neutrals, but the majority are politically aligned and will only tweet those results that show their party in front.

I often wonder what the point of this is, even though I’m guilty of it myself. It’s not as if anyone is going to see the tweet and say, ‘Ooh, I wasn’t going to vote Conservative, but now that YouGov has them two points ahead I’ve changed my mind.’ I can think of only two sensible reasons for doing this, both quite weak.

The first is it has a mildly demoralising effect on your opponents. Occasionally, I get replies from enraged lefties saying, ‘Well, what do you expect from a Murdoch rag?’ That counts as a successful bit of trolling in my book. The second is it steadies the nerves of the people on your side. For both Labour and the Conservatives, discipline during the election period is essential, and there’s no better backbone-stiffener than a four-point lead, even if it only lasts 24 hours.

But anyone giving these reasons for crowing about good polls is engaging in post-hoc rationalisation. What they’re really doing, I think, is trying to defend their belief that their team is going to win, not just to other people, but also to themselves. Publicising favourable opinion polls isn’t intended to make the result they want more likely. Rather, they’re producing ‘proof’ that the result they’ve already foretold is going to happen.

In other words, it’s a form of confirmation bias, which psychologists describe as the tendency to seize on evidence that supports your point of view, while ignoring or rejecting any evidence that contradicts it. I’m sure this is a feature of all general election campaigns, but it’s particularly apparent in this one with the polls flip-flopping from one day to the next.

As a Conservative supporter, I’ve developed dozens of copper-bottomed arguments for dismissing polls that show our opponents doing well. If Labour has gone up three points and the Conservatives down two, the unwelcome shift is ‘within the margin of error’. If Labour has suddenly surged to a five-point lead, then the poll is an ‘outlier’. Or if the poll shows Ukip doing unexpectedly well, it’s because the respondents were ‘prompted’.

After a bit it becomes difficult to sustain this scepticism — it’s obvious by now that the two main parties are neck-and-neck. But that doesn’t stop me thinking the blues are going to win. At this point, I produce another set of unassailable arguments. For instance, there’s the ‘shy Tory factor’, a term used by psephologists to describe the reluctance of some Conservative voters to identify themselves to pollsters. This explained why the polls understated support for the Tories in the run-up to the 1992 election. Nearly all of them had the Conservatives just a point ahead the day before polling day, yet we romped home with 41.9 per cent of the popular vote, compared with Labour’s 34.4 per cent.

Then there’s the ‘incumbency factor’, whereby the governing party tends to rally during the final days of the campaign. A political sociologist called Stephen Fisher has built a model that includes historical data on how support for challengers often fades as election day approaches. Based on current opinion polls, Fisher is predicting that Labour will win 32 per cent of the vote and the Tories 34 per cent, enough to make them the largest single party.

Finally, there’s the killer argument that no party led by someone with Ed Miliband’s dire approval ratings has won a general election. I know a lot of Tories who are counting on this, myself included. We are convinced — oh yes — that many people who say they’re not going to vote Tory will ‘blink’ when faced with the prospect of Ed Miliband in No. 10. They will be particularly prone to blinking — their eyelids will flutter and they will almost faint with fright — when they realise that Miliband will be reliant on Alex Salmond to get through any legislation.

One of the curiosities of confirmation bias is that being aware of it doesn’t make you any less likely to be guilty of it. Which is why I’m still convinced Cameron is going to win and will continue to tweet the polls that show the Tories in the lead.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • souptonuts

    I think like with the unexpected Major victory in 1992 it will happen again. I backed Major @ 9/2 then and have taken 5/1 for a majority Tory win this time.

  • vickreyauction

    ‘i’m guilty of it myself’ is like Charles Manson saying ‘i can be a bit manipulative, me’. You do very little but tweet opinion polls. Even the ones you think are favourable, clearly aren’t – you seem to maintain your sanity by ignoring Labour’s 3% bung from distribution bias.

    Presuming tweeting polling does anything, there’s no guarantee that it helps morale, or the cause in a voluntary voting system. Given the tightness of this election, it may turn on one day of bad weather in one constituency, and party X having half a dozen supporters more than party Y deciding that they really can’t make it outside. In that case, a belief that one’s party is more likely to win is more likely to dissuade people from making the effort to vote.

    From US post-polling we know that that benefits left parties because of age-shift. Put simply, the young dont feel the cold.

    So tweet away, old chap! You have no idea what effect it has, you cherry pick theories to justify the rationale, and disguise the desperate need many of you have to not think about the impending possible Tory disaster – a single term, Labour back in for another 2 and thus having dominated the UK for 25 of the last 30 years.

    Eyes down for a full house…….

  • Using individual opinion polls is logically equivalent to using individual voters in argument, it is just a less extreme form of statistical mendacity. I met a man who is going to vote Monster Raving Loony therefore they will win. I met a thousand people who collectively voted for a conservative majority… No matter how well you randomly select voters. I think the BBC poll tracker gives an accurate representation (poll of polls over time). The fact of the matter is the vote is pretty evenly split and a big shift will depend on one party having a disaster. Otherwise, due to the greater efficiency of the Labour vote, a Labour minority government is the most likely outcome.

    The media is set on denying a proper debate. How many days has the Jeremy Clarkson story been discussed? Therefore one of the parties having a disaster seems less and less likely. We can only hope that both ‘major’ leaders are brutally interrogated by journalists between now and the election. This sort of meta journalism is part of the problem.

  • liversedge

    It must be terrible news to see Ed Miliband’s approval ratings going up.

    Terrible news.


    • Bert

      Well those approval ratings cant go much lower now can they….

      Not sure why it’s something to be cheered either frankly.

  • Raddiy

    Has one of the party sychophants in the press had a Damascene moment, has he at last realised that perhaps nobody is listening to him, and that nobody is hanging on his every word, or perhaps is he trying to justify his blind unthinking loyalty to a party whatever they do or don’t do. What a strange essay, that for all his fine words Toby Young admits that he prefers to let others think for him.

    Confirmation bIas, is this a buzz word for the chattering classes to intellectualise what is in effect tribal loyalty of the sheepie type. ‘my dad/father and their dad/father before them always voted (insert party of choice)’ , and so do I.

    Reading the childish biffing and baffing on twitter every evening from so called intelligent bubble inhabitants, clearly shows that if we are to move our country forward, it will not happen with the help of the chattering classes, but will happen because of real people, ordinary people, perhaps without the benefit of an education, but who think for themselves, and have the guts to stand up and be counted.