Quantum Theory Predicts Answers in Surveys- July, 2014

Quantum Theory Predicts Answers in Surveys

A recent scientific study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported at phys.org, found that by using quantum theory to analyze how people respond to survey questions researchers could exactly predict the number of changed answers following a question-order change in the questioning.  That is, when the order of a question was changed, the researchers, by applying quantum theory could predict, exactly, the rate of change in answers.  The research suggests that people reason not according to contemporary social science ideas of standard probability, but by quantum rules.

Zheng Wang, the lead author of the study and associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University, was quoted as saying, “Human behavior is very sensitive to context.  It may be as context sensitive as the actions of some of the particles that quantum physicists study.”

The researchers studied results from two laboratory studies, and from 70 national surveys from Gallup and Pew Research for the time period of 2001 through 2011.  Researchers have long known that there is a “question-order effect” in surveys, where the order in which questions are asked can affect the answers given; surveyors will often change the order of their questions in order to minimize the effect.

One example cited in the article was that of a survey question from a Gallup poll.  Among the questions were whether or not Bill Clinton was thought to be honest and trustworthy, and whether or not Al Gore was thought to be honest and trustworthy.   When the question about Bill Clinton was asked first, 49% of the respondents found both men honest and trustworthy.   When the question about Al Gore was asked first, 56% of the respondents thought both men were honest and trustworthy.  The researchers predicted that a pattern of “the number of people who switch from “yes-yes” to “no-no” when the question order is reversed must be offset by the number of people who switch in the opposite direction.”  The researchers predicted the pattern exactly.   The number of people who said ”no-no” [that both Clinton and Gore were not honest and trustworthy] changed from 28%, when the question about Bill Clinton was asked first, to 21%, when the question asked first about Al Gore.

The quantum question equality was found in every one of the surveys examined.

Source:  Jeff Grabmeier, “Quantum theory reveals puzzling pattern in how people respond to some surveys,” phys.org, June 16, 2014:  http://phys.org/news/2014-06-quantum-theory-reveals-puzzling-pattern.html

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor