Let me ask you a question

Polling, and market research in general, needs to stop playing around the fringes and make some real changes, says Nadim Sadek, and this could mean being more like Trump and less like Clinton.

Do you enjoy sex?

Find that question a bit intrusive? Recoil a bit? That’s because you were asked a direct question, and that alerted your System 2 cognitive system to take control of your response, which often involves shielding your true feelings, until you know you’re safe.

Will you vote for Trump?

I’m not saying it’s engendering quite the same thoughts as the first question…but it’s still uncomfortable and blunt. Who am I to ask? What does it expose you to if you say yes? It’s obvious to you that the media largely think he’s a buffoon at best so what benefit is there to you in the transaction where you reveal to me that, yes, he’s your private favourite?

This is the problem with polls. They expose people. They rely on System 2 cognitive processing. And there’s no gratification nor benefit for participating, so motivations are incredibly low to reveal the truth.

Pollsters have invented a Frankenstein sophistication to counteract that. They up-weight responses and account for tendencies — underdogs are under-represented, so lift their scores a bit; favourites self-perpetuate, so depress them a bit; Hispanics this, Blacks that, working class another; the artistic, the privileged, those in the sun, those voting in the evening — everything gets an algorithm.

And all of this messing about with numbers and prejudices and subjectivity, masks the central truth of polling: they are measuring the wrong things, and measuring them the wrong way.

Before I describe a better way, let me say why they keep doing it over and over. When you create norms, you begin to be fascinated by them. They’re lines in the sand, and under pressure, let’s say sand becomes granite, un-erasable and forever the baseline.

So you have to do the same things over and over to make stuff ‘comparable’, ‘reliable’ and ‘significant’. A bank of data becomes an incontrovertible compass to the true heading.

Humans are brilliant. We can walk in straight lines, and we can go round in circles. We do so better than any other known creature because at this point in our evolution, our brains can be rational, linear and logical (System 2 ), or we can be reflexive, instinctual, and simply ‘feeling’ (System 1 ). We can read the lines. And we can read between the lines.

Hillary Clinton spoke the lines. Donald Trump tweet-spoke between them. She promised to fine-tune and fettle an engine she claimed was already purring. He said we need to change the engine or we’re going nowhere. Their styles were their messages. Clinton was the assumptive, privileged type. Trump was the gauche insurgent, promising to reset the game.

The USA just had its first System 1 election. The words didn’t matter. And that’s why President-elect Trump’s absence of manifesto detail — other than the promise to be Great Again — was perfectly fine. More people were sick of the status quo than wanting to preserve it. And really, that was the only debate that mattered.

None of the polls in which huge investments are repeatedly made measure System 1. They all rely on rational, linear collection of responses. The answers they get are cognitive, numeric or otherwise rational. It suits the polling industry not to change this. Why? Because if you change it, you lose the norms. And that opens the playing field to innovative measurement, which, commercially, means opening an artery and bleeding your revenues into the great plains, to be lost without trace, except for memories of an ugly expiry.

It does not have to be like this. It is perfectly possible to have better measures, measured better. Instead of asking people direct questions that trigger their System 2 cautious, circumspect and, dare I say, sometimes dissimulative frameworks, we can actually ask them about things that underpin all relationships — with politicians or brands or even each other. We can get to their System 1 heartfelt responses.

At TX, we have invested years in taking the science, from the Theory of Social Exchange of the 1950s to increasingly sophisticated psychology and neuroscience, to identify 16 universal drivers of relationships. They apply in all categories, to all things. They are better measures. Then we embraced the mass availability of brilliant computer science and mathematics that allows subtle, meaningful scoring to be clearly analysed. And twinned it with a measuring system that bypasses System 2 and gets straight to what we really feel in System 1.

Technically, we measure the 16 drivers through implicit response timing. We get people to reveal, without embarrassment, censure or insecurity, what they really feel and plan to do. About anything and everything. Including candidates for the American Presidency. Does it work? Well, I wrote an article in July, predicting Donald Trump’s victory. We scored him as winning on 15 of the 16 drivers.

Polling, and market research in general, is a largely moribund industry, fiddling around the edges, while the world it seeks to measure and explain moves fast all around it. It’s very Hillary, if I may say so.

How many more elections, with their attendant poll-failures and repeated post-mortems, do we have to go through, before we say enough is enough? Uncomfortably, perhaps, we have to be more Donald.

Nadim Sadek is CEO of TransgressiveX

To learn more visit www.transgressivex.com