A perfect Balanced Sample

(L-R) Sir Humphrey Appleby, Jim Hacker and Bernard Woolley, from Yes Prime MinisterReturning to the topic of dubious opinion polls, the 9/11 poll may also demonstrate the phenomenon of “commitment consistency”, a concept demonstrated many years ago in a classic scene from the 1980s political sitcom, “Yes, Prime Minister”.

In one episode, the prime minister, Jim Hacker (pictured, centre), has been persuaded to consider reintroducing National Service (i.e. conscription). The cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (left), is appalled by this suggestion, and discusses with his underling Bernard Woolley (the PM’s principal private secretary, right) how to undermine one of the arguments that has influenced the PM, namely an opinion poll apparently proving that “the Man In The Street” supports the return of National Service.

As Sir Humphrey explains:

The secret is that when the Man In The Street is approached by a nice attractive young lady with a clipboard he is asked a series of questions. Naturally the Man In The Street wants to make a good impression and doesn’t want to make a fool of himself. So the market researcher asks questions designed to elicit consistent answers.

The opinion poll then only reports the final question and answer.

Sir Humphrey goes on to ask Bernard the series of questions used in the poll whose results the PM had found so persuasive:

H: Mr Woolley, are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?

B: Yes!

H: Do you think there is a lack of discipline and vigorous training in our Comprehensive Schools?

B: Yes!

H: Do you think young people welcome some structure and leadership in their lives?

B: Yes!

H: Do they respond to a challenge?

B: Yes!

H: Might you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?

B: Yes!

Sir Humphrey then suggests commissioning a new survey designed to elicit the opposite outcome:

H: Mr Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?

B: Yes!

H: Are you unhappy about the growth of armaments?

B: Yes!

H: Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?

B: Yes!

H: Do you think it wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?

B: Yes!

H: Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?

B: Yes!

As Sir Humphrey says, crowing with delight: “You see, Bernard, you’re the perfect Balanced Sample.”

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