December 12, 2005

Alienated Nation?

I’m having a problem with this Harris survey that has been done annually for a long time (graph presented here is the last 10 years of a 33-year graph at The Wall Street Journal; the December 8 WSJ article on the topic is here; subscription required for both):


The biggest problem I have (other than the normal objection I always have, which is that surveys and polls should only be taken of people who vote consistently in real elections) is that Harris used soft-language questions in the actual survey, and then turned the results into hard-language conclusions in their press release. The hard-language conclusions will largely be what ends up in the news stories written about the survey results.

Here is the introduction to the detailed questions (found at Table 3 of their press release; bold is mine):

“Now I want to read you some things some people have told us they have felt from time to time. Do you tend to feel or not feel (READ LIST)?”

I would suggest that there are few flesh-and-blood humans who haven’t answered “yes” to having the feelings of alienation noted “from time to time.” You could have felt that way three days out of past year and answered affirmatively.

But here’s what Harris did with the results, again from their press release:

In the latest survey, the Alienation Index, the measure of feeling alienated, has risen substantially by five points, to 55, which is the highest since 2000.
The current increase of five points since last year’s measure of 50 can perhaps be attributed to the lack of popularity of the country’s leaders and the direction the country is heading. President Bush’s ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency and the proportion that thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction is also at its lowest point since President Bush came into office. Furthermore, in the new Alienation Index, large numbers (75%) feel that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Similar trends have been reported on by the media when referring to federal government statistics.
These are some of the results of a nationwide Harris Interactive(R) survey of 1,011 adults conducted by telephone between November 8 and 13, 2005.
The Index is based on the replies to five questions, designed to measure feelings of powerlessness and isolation, which have been asked regularly since 1966. All of the replies to these five questions have increased significantly since 2004 (i.e. alienation has risen).
– 75 percent believe that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (up significantly from 68 percent in 2004).
– 60 percent believe that “most people with power try to take advantage of people like you” (up sharply from 53 percent in 2004).
– 53 percent feel that “what you think doesn’t count very much any more” (up slightly from 51 percent in 2004).
– 53 percent believe that “the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you” (up sharply from 44 percent in 2004).
– 35 percent feel that “you’re left out of things going on around you” (virtually unchanged from 34 percent last year).


  • The words “tend to” disappeared, didn’t they? So now they look like solid and constant feelings that people have instead of mere tendencies. (On the other hand, kudos to The Journal for making sure that “tend to” appeared in the heading of their graph).
  • Note the addition of over-the-top anti-Bush spin and the gratuitous inclusion of “perhaps” assertions about President Bush that can’t in any way be supported by the original survey.
  • “All of the replies to these five questions have increased significantly.” Uh, no–three of them did; the others are described in the detailed list as “up slightly” and “virtually unchanged.” Can’t, keep, story, straight.
  • This is really precious: “Similar trends have been reported on by the media when referring to federal government statistics.” No specifics, we’re just supposed to assume it’s correct.
  • Finally, note that The Journal only charted the items that went up significantly, not the two that went up, but only by a bit.

As to the fact that the numbers for three of the five items are trending upward during the past four years (after a big drop that occurred in the survey taken shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks), do I even need to explain that? OK, I will (but remember, these are tendencies): years of negative reporting about the economy, the war in Iraq, and the Bush Administration in general–in spite of the fact that the economy is doing very well; progress in Iraq has been objectively steady; and the majority of voters the last time they were asked indicated that they wanted the party of George Bush to have the White House, majority control of The Senate and The House, the majority of state governorships, and the majority of state legislatures (perhaps even down to the majority of dog catchers).

While I’m at it, I should point out that the following about the three statements charted:

  1. Rich Getting Richer: During the past 4 years, that’s barely true. During the previous administration, that statement was largely true. Anyway, America has such great income mobility that the question is almost irrelevant. Much more on that can be found here.
  2. People in Power Taking Advantage: There sure have been a lot of execs paying a pretty steep price in the past few years (the heads of Adelphia, Worldcom, and Tyco, for starters). Additionally, if there is to be any good salvaged from the billions of dollars companies are paying to comply with Sarbanes Oxley every year, you would think one of them will be the reality, and one would hope the eventual perception, that the people in the executive suites who don’t follow the rules will pay a steep price.
  3. People Running the Country Really Don’t Care: I guess that’s what happens when you have a president who isn’t obsessed with reminding us that he “feels our pain.”

To the extent that the company has taken tendencies towards feelings of alienation and reported them as if they are firmly held beliefs, Harris is engaging in survey malpractice. It’s high time the firm stops this charade.


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