Either way you put it?

Jan. 26, 2010, 12:02 a.m.

The re-wording of a famous national survey question revealed that Americans may be more concerned about issues, like the environment, than formerly believed.

What a difference a phrase makes. Since George Gallup developed the question in the 1930s, Americans have answered the open-ended query, What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today? But Samuel Larson ’11 wondered if there was biased wording in the famous inquiry so he and a team of Stanford researchers decided to recast the question.

“I think the most important thing we found is that we think that our data show that the original ‘most important problem’ question doesn’t give a full picture of what Americans care about,” Larson said. “It biases people away from the idea that there’s more than just America and the problems of the future. We think people do care about these issues and issues that affect the whole world.”

Last year, Larson was working in Professor Jon Krosnick’s clinical psychology research group with Ph.D. student David Yeager when he began to question the wording of the question.

“I asked them about that, so we decided to tear into the question and tease out what was in the wording,” said Larson, a current participant in the “Stanford in Washington” program.

They made four changes to the question in time for the Associated Press-Stanford poll conducted at the end of November among 1,005 adults.

“First, we decided to change this country to the world, and second, we wanted to broaden the time horizon so we included the future,” Larson said. “The third thing is when we look at those questions, we’re worried about optimism bias.”

Larson said that people may believe that global warming will be a big problem but they don’t have to deal with it because society will deal with it.

And the last change, Larson said, was using serious problem as opposed to important because of the ambiguity around its meaning.

The team ultimately decided on the new wording: What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?

Krosnick asked the AP to include both questions in the final survey with over 70 other questions.

The results showed a significant difference in the percentage of responses. Roughly one percent of respondents named the global warming category in answering the traditionally worded question. The most common responses were the economy (36 percent), unemployment (14 percent), health care (13 percent), government (6 percent) and war (5 percent).

Gallup published similar results on November 16 of last year. It found 31 percent of respondents cited the economy as the most pressing issue, compared to the previous month’s 26 percent.

But in the re-worded question for the AP-Stanford poll, the percentage that named global warming increased to nearly 12 percent, the second most common response after the economy (16 percent).

“My belief that is there is no meaningful decline in public concern about this issue and there have been inadequate survey questions,” Krosnick said about the research results.

Krosnick and Larson are interested in exploring the possibility that the rewording of this question can affect the results of other surveys that try to capture “national mood.” Krosnick especially recognizes Larson and the research team.

“Ten undergrads work in my lab every year and those students are a terrific group,” Krosnick said. “And every so often people end up doing remarkable work. I’m terrifically proud of the work that Sam did and it did take the whole team a lot of work. I think it’s a wonderful thing for Stanford to be proud of.”

In addition to the new academic findings of the revised survey question, there are also political implications for a change in survey results.

“I think interest in the environment relates to the political feasibility for climate change legislation passing this year,” said Ishan Nath ’12, president of Stanford’s chapter of the environmental college network, IDEAS.

Nath said that climate change is a hot-button issue among Stanford students as a whole, but he believes there is only a vocal minority. To help foster dialogue on climate change, Nath and IDEAS are partnering with the Stanford Political Union to host a student debate on climate change policy on February 9. The event will also feature Stanford climatologist Steve Schneider and professor of environmental and resource economics Larry Goulder.

“We hope student questions will be a significant part of the event,” Nath said. “I can’t speak for other universities, but at Stanford there’s a significant core of students dedicated to environmental causes.”

Theo Gibbs ’11, co-president of Students for a Sustainable Stanford, added that concerned students may not be visibly engaged in discussion surrounding the environment.

“In terms of activism in general on campus, most people would agree that Stanford isn’t an activist campus,” Gibbs said. “Students choose other methods of engagement. That may be a generational difference. We don’t view marching on the streets as an effective form. I think there’s more of a business-like model in terms of solving issues. We have to consider the economics and long term viability of these issues.”

When asked about his reaction to the public response to the AP-Stanford survey results, Professor Krosnick expressed concern with the interpretation of the numbers.

“I am disappointed in the press in general’s coverage of public opinion recently,” he said. “The science does not suggest public drop-off in concern of climate change and yet the media coverage has suggested that the public is less concerned.”

Nath said that there is a ticking time bomb on climate change legislation, and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be now or never.

“It needs to happen when there’s a Democratic majority and if it doesn’t happen this year, then it might not happen,” Nath said. “I think this poll is really about that.”

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