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February 16, 2019

MUGWE: Opinion polls: Myth or science?

Deputy President William Ruto and Kirinyanga governor Ann Waiguru at his Karen residence on August 23. /DPPS
Deputy President William Ruto and Kirinyanga governor Ann Waiguru at his Karen residence on August 23. /DPPS
“Ain’t the way I heard it.” These six words have since become synonymous with the 33rd President of the United States, Harry S Truman, who assumed office in 1945. He was responding to pollsters who had predicted his opponent’s victory in the election that followed in 1948.

So confident were the pollsters that a media house called the Chicago Tribune, printed an early edition with the headline “Dewey defeats Truman”. This turned out to be a misprediction because it was Truman who won the election. Since then, a picture of President Truman holding aloft a copy of the Tribune that carried that headline, has become a part of America’s national folklore.

An opinion poll is a method for collecting information about the views or beliefs of a given issue. It is used to measure the pulse of the electorate. It is generally based on a set of questions used to determine or predict what people believe, how they feel about something or in what way they will act on a given issue or candidate.

A recently released opinion poll on corruption perception has elicited a mixed bag of emotions. It reported that most Kenyans deemed Deputy President William Ruto and Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru as the most corrupt political leaders. Naturally, the two have dismissed the poll findings as a witch hunt and accused the pollster of advancing certain political agendas. And as expected, their nemesis and zealous supporters have taken up their positions in the political chorale in competition of who can sing the loudest tune. 

But can public opinion on political matters be trusted as a bankable research finding? To arrive at a conclusive response, we need to first appreciate how the opinions we possess are shaped. 

The opinions we hold are developed through a process called political socialisation. This is a process by which we crystalize political identities, values and behaviour that remains relatively persistent throughout later life.

Largely, our families are the most significant influence because the family is the group with whom we spend most of our time during our formative years, and in many cases, they are the group whose opinions we value the most. At a young age, we have nothing to compare our parent’s beliefs to and, we have no reason to believe they are wrong. Naturally, we then adopt similar opinions.

The other influence is the media because it is often the way in which we acquire information of issues outside of our immediate life space, particularly in those areas in which we do not possess direct knowledge or experience of what is happening.

There are three ways in which the media shapes our opinions. The first is agenda setting. As readers and viewers, we perceive how much importance to attach to an issue based on the emphasis the media gives it. The media does this by providing differential levels of coverage on specific issues or through cues such as large bold headlines, the opening story on the newscast and the length of time devoted to it.

The second is priming. Priming provides basic perception and relative comparison, which makes judgement easier and quicker. For instance, the media can prime us on what a credible person looks like; or words which we come across frequently are more noticeable to us.

And finally, framing. Stories do not write themselves. They are written by people who are also partakers of the political socialisation process. The writers decide how to present or convey the information. They influence us on how and why to think about an issue. They communicate in a manner that leads us to see something from a certain perspective. Effective framing reinforces pre-existing beliefs and attitudes. 

The gravitas of political socialisation is evident in the difference between knowledge and opinion. This is confirmed by a study conducted by neuroscientists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of South California, which found that people are hardheaded about their political opinions, even when provided with new counter evidence.

The study found that political opinions are like religious beliefs and when challenged or questioned, our brains become active in the areas that govern our personal identity and emotional responses to threats. These opinions become a part of who we are, and are important for the social circles to which we belong. Therefore, to consider an alternative view, we would have to consider an alternative version of ourselves. The latter exposes our vulnerability, and so the natural tendency is to defend our opinions in an effort to counter any threat.

Knowledge on the other hand invites questions. What one claims to know can be verified and justified because it is based on credible information and sufficient evidence. In a court of law, there is a famous rule called the opinion rule. It is an exclusionary rule of evidence which states that a witness should testify to facts not opinions. It states that when a witness is giving a testimony, he must report only on what he saw or heard, not what he thinks happened because that would be giving an opinion, rather than facts.

There can be no doubt that the Ipsos respondents applied the opinion rule in the court of public opinion. And were we to interrogate this further, it would become apparent that their opinions have been largely shaped by the nuances and cues they pick from the media and their social circles. There is no random Kenyan who has the full knowledge to make an informed decision on who are the most corrupt leaders in Kenya. It is, therefore, mischievous and malevolent for the Ipsos pollsters to parade this information as newsworthy. However, it is also a bankable fact, that this public perception will not change anytime soon.

Therefore, my unsolicited advice to those offended by public opinion is; if one person says you are a horse, smile at them. If two people say you are a horse, give it some thought. But if more than two people say that you are a horse, go out and buy a saddle.


Opinions are like onions. They spell similarly, usually have many layers, and tend to make people cry - Caitlyn Paige 

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