The women's locker room was empty when I got there, but there was a lot of banging going on. The echoes in the cavernous field house made it hard to tell where the noise was coming from. In the little corridor leading to the showers stood a sign that said, "Caution: Wet Floors," which was odd, since the place was carpeted.
A few minutes after I arrived, a cleaning woman walked in and recoiled, aghast, at the sight of me in my underwear. "There are men working in there!" she gasped as she gestured frantically toward the showers.
I froze. "There are?"
"Yes! Didn't you see the sign?"
Totally nonplussed, I stammered, "The sign says, 'Caution: Wet Floors.'"
"That" she replied, in a tone that clearly said it was the most obvious thing in the world, "is because we couldn't find the 'Men Working' sign."
Talk about your cognitive dissonance.
In a way, this issue of Public Opinion Pros is all about cognitive dissonance?the psychological tension we feel when what we already know or believe is at odds with new information or interpretations of facts. I would like to say I planned for the articles this month to cluster elegantly around this theme, but it actually did not occur to me until I saw them all together that survey researchers have to deal with cognitive dissonance all the time.
Take the continuing controversy over the role of "moral values" in the recent presidential election. The shape of this debate changes every time someone suggests a new angle from which to view it, and "tension" might not be too strong a word to describe the lack of resolution associated with the use of that term in the National Election Pool exit poll question that asked voters what issue was most important in deciding their votes.
In his article discussing the election mandate and the role of moral values, Al Richman looks at a number of surveys using different question formats to offer insight into where the electorate really stood on issues, and not only to gauge the importance to voters of "moral values," but to try to shed light on what they understood by the term. In the first of his occasional columns for Public Opinion Pros, Howard Schuman discusses the ways in which the temporal and physical setting of the exit poll shaped its format, which in turn created the controversy over the meaning of responses. And George Bishop argues that there is no way we can know what respondents mean because they don't know what they mean.
In other features offering variations on this theme, Greg Shaw investigates the phenomenon of false consensus, wherein people overestimate the degree to which others behave and believe the same way they do. Stephanie Willson and her colleagues at the National Center for Health Statistics describe the effects time, place, and hurricanes had on respondents' comprehension of questions in the field test of a post-disaster questionnaire.
And, finally, in the debut of another new column, POP associate editor John Benson turns the discussion away from trying to figure out what people know and ponders the different ways in which pollsters try to deal with respondents who say they don't know?all while flatly refusing to acknowledge that he himself knows anything at all.
I have a strong tendency to personalize social phenomena to my own small sphere of existence, which I suppose is shamefully anti-intellectual, not to mention a very bad habit to have if one is running a magazine that focuses on people in the aggregate. But every time someone tells me that, obviously, the "Wet Floors" sign means "Men Working," or that it is a good idea to suspend a tarp from my garage roof with cinderblocks to shoot street hockey balls into, or says or does something else that causes my previously solid understanding of the world and its inhabitants to tip over on its side and have trouble getting up, I can't help but think that somewhere in the interstices of what people say and what is actually going on in their heads lies the key to all human understanding.
Either that, or madness.
Ferraro Parmelee, Editor