The disparity between the recent political polls released by local news organisations has again raised questions about the accuracy of such surveys and whether we should pay any attention to them at all.
These questions are particularly pointed in the aftermath of the Colombian referendum, Brexit, the Trump victory and the recent Australian election – all notable examples of pollsters getting their predictions wrong.
Colleen Ryan, the head of strategy at Kiwi research firm TRA, says the problem with polling comes down to human behaviour and how we like to present ourselves to others.
"People are very poor at telling the truth," she says.
"This doesn't mean that they're lying, but they do say things that they think others would like to hear."
Ryan looks back at the example of Margaret Thatcher, pointing out that while many saw moral problems with the former British Prime Minister's reign they also secretly felt she was helping to fix the economy.
Ryan says that when you have this kind of divide, you end up with people publicly saying one thing but then making a different decision in the anonymous chamber of a voting booth.
Telling a researcher your view – whether it's online, in person or via an app – is far more confronting than simply casting a vote when you have the legal guarantee of anonymity and this can interfere with the level of honesty we see in polls.
People are incredibly good at crafting an image of how they would like to be perceived – a trend doesn't suddenly stop when they answer a few questions in a polling survey. When people are presented with a question they'll often rationalise and look for the answer that presents the version they would like others to see. But this overlooks an important part of our make-up that's highly influential when it comes to making decisions.
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"Humans tend to be self-interested," says Ryan, adding that this often influences the way different groups are likely to vote. Whether it's an older person looking for pension gains or a younger person hoping for the liberalisation of drug laws, Ryan notes that we tend to vote for the party or policy most likely to benefit us. This could be seen as a reason why NZ First regularly performs far better on election day than any polls suggest.
A better way?
She says a better way of posing polling questions might be to shift the attention from the person being questioned to other groups.
"In predictive questioning, you ask people to comment on how they think different groups will vote."
She says this will give you a better indication of the motivations behind the decision that people are likely to make at the polling booth. The difference here is that we're given a glimpse at the emotional side of the debate, which is often integral in determining how people make decisions.
Further to this, Ryan says it's interesting to note that online measures of social media sentiment have been better predictors of election results than traditional polling.
The reason for this, she says, is because this sentiment is based on observations of conversations happening across social media. No one is being asked what they think. It's more a case of the views playing out in casual conversation.
The problem with this kind of measure, of course, is that it doesn't offer a sample that's representative of the entire population and it generally can't serve up neat percentages on how people are performing.
The final point Ryan makes is that while much attention has been placed on polls getting it wrong, most of the biggest results have been incredibly close.
"People talk about the polls being wrong, but the discrepancies are often very small. You're generally talking about a 49-51 per cent split, which is well within the margin of error."
Politics vs popularity
Given that polls are so sensitive to the fickleness of human behaviour, it is important to question whether we should be making major political decisions on the basis of a good or bad result in a poll. Should we really be firing politicians on the basis that they haven't done well on a poll?
In the business world, we've seen a steady movement away from asking people why they make certain decisions because this approach is fundamentally flawed.
Inspired by thinkers like Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, businesses are now shifting their attention to observing human behaviour rather than asking people what they think. The reason is that people don't post-rationalise, lie or deceive when they're in the moment. They just do what best serves their interests.
If politicians are consistently looking to appeal to the masses and win points in polls, there's a real risk that they'll lose the hearts of the key constituents they actually need to appeal to. And once you've lost the heart, the mind almost becomes irrelevant – well, until the next poll comes along, of course.