People often change their minds. A researcher sees this when they follow one person’s answers to a question over time. It’s one of the reasons why a person’s behaviour is hard to predict. Luckily for the forecaster, the actions of a vast population are easier to predict. Perhaps one of your colleagues will choose to get their piano tuned next week. That’s tricky to predict. But we can be fairly certain that there will be people getting pianos tuned each week.
Yet should we trust estimates of what a population will do by asking them? This question pushes opinion surveys measurement toward a more predictive role. We have a publicly-visible answer when we look at voter intentions in pre-election polls, but the story of polling now has loose ends after the surprising outcome of the Brexit Referendum.
When news of the Brexit outcome broke, opinion pollsters were widely criticised with many headlines asking how the polls could get it ‘so wrong’. It’s possible that when we feel uncertain about the reliability of polling some of this doubt rubs off on other types of opinion surveys.
Before the Brexit Referendum results, a lot of people were sleeping soundly at night, unaware of the disruption that was coming. But others were tuning in. The European Union commission apparently worked on a confidential ‘Plan B’ in the event that Britain voted to leave. There were also the punters who hoped to win money on the outcome. According to the bookies, most punters bet on ‘remain’, making it the favourite. This was an interesting test of the wisdom of betting crowds, who collectively have access to vast amounts of valuable information in addition to polls. Financial markets were hit by a massive shock despite traders and investors theoretically having access to teams of analysts with access to vast sources of information. Pollsters, on the other hand, have access to only one source: how their respondents say they plan to vote at any one moment.
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Matt Howley, Insights Team Manager, Telstra