Public Opinion Research: Measuring Happiness

Polls closely tracked the race for the French presidency over the last few weeks, giving candidates and the public an early peek at the likely results. Meanwhile, things are just heating up in the United States, where the elections–and public opinion polling–can be expected to intensify in the next 18 months.

Public opinion research is clearly a thriving business. The number of jobs is still small, but the field is expanding–and not just in election polling. Governments increasingly sample the preferences of their citizens before making policy decisions, media outlets commission polls as part of their reporting, and research organizations map changes in attitudes on social questions.

Surveys tell us, for example, that Ireland embraces the euro, that Danes are happy with their lives, and that people in southern-European countries worry more about climate change than do those at higher latitudes. Researchers in this field attempt to understand cultural attitudes and preferences, then pass that information along to the people who need to hear it. “We give [the public] a voice, in a certain way,” says Femke De Keulenaer, a researcher at Gallup Europe in Brussels, Belgium.

Both a career and a science

For behavioral scientists considering a career in public polling research, it helps to have a fascination with numbers. De Keulenaer earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Ghent in Belgium, and during her master’s studies in quantitative analysis at the Catholic University of Brussels, she discovered how numbers “really can explain changes and trends in public opinion” within and across cultures, she says. But it wasn’t until her Ph.D. work at the University of Antwerp that she realized that survey methodology “is both a career and a science.” Soon after starting her doctoral program, she headed to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to train in survey methodology at the Gallup Research Center. The exchange helped her hook up with Gallup Europe, and she joined the organization last year.

At Gallup Europe, a branch of the 2000-employee Gallup Organization, De Keulenaer works on “Flash Eurobarometer” projects, a set of 15 to 20 surveys ordered each year by the European Commission to measure the attitudes of European citizens. Some polls investigate the issue du jour, such as a survey in February that highlighted opinions on higher education reform across the European Union. Others, such as the series investigating how locals are adapting to the euro, track trends in attitudes and behavior (see graphic above).

Public opinion polls take the social temperature on everything from government programs to citizen well-being. “Happiness is a big issue for government,” says Bobby Duffy, deputy managing director of the Social Research Institute at Ipsos MORI, which employs 900 researchers. “People have quite clear ideas about what they want.” Duffy’s work–and De Keulenaer’s–helps policymakers know what those ideas are.

The work of public opinion pollsters requires grounding in basic social science research methods, such as how to ask good questions. Most Scots will answer in the affirmative if asked whether they favor Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, notes Robert Johns, a social researcher at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. But when given a range of options for governance, “support for independence plummets,” he says. “In a way, both are valid. It’s purely a function of question design.”

As if quantifying feelings weren’t hard enough, cultural quirks can skew results. De Keulenaer’s latest project measures life satisfaction, a topic of interest to governments everywhere and a sociological hot spot. But it’s hard to compare happiness across cultures, she explains, when some countries are intrinsically happier than others–or say they are, at least. Danes claim to be very happy with their lives, as do Americans–which is odd, she continues, considering how different the countries are. De Keulenaer’s training helps her navigate these national tendencies and coax insightful answers out of the sea of optimism.

An evolving field

The demand for public opinion research is growing, says Oliver Krieg, a spokesperson for TNS Emnid, a German political and social research company with 12 researchers on staff. London-based MORI grew from about 100 researchers to 400 in the 10 years before it merged with Ipsos, another public opinion research company, in 2005.

But media and governments’ appetite for survey information, coupled with the advent of instant communication, hasn’t just caused the industry to grow. It has also sped the pace of the work. Whereas newspapers previously asked for results in a week, they now want data within hours. And deadlines, often, are absolute. “On Election Sunday, when you have a prognosis at 6 p.m., you can’t publish at 6:15,” says Heiko Gothe, project manager at Infratest dimap, a Berlin company with a dozen researchers monitoring voter attitudes in Germany. “It’s very usual that we have a tough time schedule.”

Gothe’s training is in political science, but he chose public opinion research for its “possibility to combine scientific methods in a pragmatic field.” One key to the job, he says, is writing: Because media clients will quote a report verbatim, researchers must present their findings in a way the public can easily understand–while staying meticulously accurate.

Although survey design employs long-established techniques, public opinion researchers also have to keep up with new approaches. “We’re constantly reacting to new survey technologies to see if they have the potential as a research tool,” says De Keulenaer. Improving research methods adds another tributary in her work stream of proposing and designing surveys, then analyzing and writing up the results.

By taking a scientific approach to cultural understanding, De Keulenaer and her colleagues help politicians and policymakers keep the big picture–and the attitudes of their constituents–in view.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700072

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