Polls, Privacy and Security: a Betrayal of Public Trust

How were millions of Americans recently persuaded to accept outrageously invasive body searches at airports while voicing the most muted of protests? I mean we’re talking about the land of the free, the home of John Wayne, where citizens covet the right to bear arms in case their government steps out of line. Well it did, but all that was heard was a whimper. In what follows we examine the social forces that molded the attitudes of Americans to accept these invasive protocols and in particular the roles played by the government (Transportation Security Administration), the media, and public opinion polls.

TSA, the media and polling

When the TSA first came out with the “enhanced” security procedures that included genital pat downs and naked full body x-ray scans, the general public reaction was a feeling that on an instinctive emotional level, people’s privacy was being violated. In its efforts to ensure airport security, the government had clearly crossed the line and invaded people’s private space. Since recent polls have shown that Americans don’t have much trust in their government (only 36% said they trust Congress) and the TSA is on organ of government, most Americans would have greeted these TSA-inspired security procedures with a healthy dose of skepticism.

However, at the same time major media were carrying stories based on a CBS poll showing that 81% of Americans agreed that these security measures were acceptable to the American public, and that the intrusion into one’s private space was a reasonable trade-off against terrorist attacks.  The media blitz included our most trusted and influential television networks like CBS, CNN and ABC and highly regarded newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times.

This media blitz gave the TSA message trust value that the public could not ignore.

The American mind, as a consequence, was left with a contradictory message. Gut instinct was telling the mind “No” while American society seemed to be saying “Yes”. What were they supposed to believe?  Here things began to get interesting.

Cognitive dissonance

The human mind has a hard time processing and acting on contradictory information. It feels uneasy, uncomfortable.  In fact, social scientists have a name for just that state of mind. It’s called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a theory most fully developed by Leon Festinger that describes a person’s behavior when prior beliefs are contradicted by new information. A conflicted mind will do what is necessary to reduce the dissonance i.e., change one’s prior beliefs or reject the new information. For example, smokers need to rationalize the idea of living a full and healthy life with the idea that their bad habit will likely lead to a shorter and unhealthy life. So they end up making lame excuses like: not all smokers die of cancer, you have to die of something, etc, and continue puffing away.

The Ben Franklin effect

It’s somewhat ironic that the human mind which is the source of all deceit, fabrications, half-truths, spins, etc., is itself uncomfortable with the prospect of managing contradictory information. Nevertheless that seems to be the observation from numerous laboratory experiments designed to test the theory. The theory has also been extremely useful in explaining seemingly irrational human behavior in a variety of social contexts. And it certainly isn’t a new idea. Ben Franklin described its application in regards to a longtime political enemy that he befriended not by bestowing favors on the man, but by asking to borrow a rare book owned by his enemy. After receiving a note of gratitude from Ben Franklin for the favor, the man treated Franklin with courtesy for the rest of his life.  Why?  As the kind gesture was emotionally incompatible (dissonant) with the belief of Franklin as an enemy, the belief changed. For a long time this was known as the Ben Franklin effect, which today we understand as an application of cognitive dissonance.

But I digress….

Self-Delusion and other consequences

The cognitive dissonance created by the enhanced TSA security procedures are rationalized by many Americans in a similar fashion. In effect they persuade themselves that these procedures are really not that invasive, that it’s worth the trouble in security gained, that the cumulative exposures to x-rays have negligible health effects, etc. These rationalizations are often expressed in news stories involving interviews of people who have just gone through the enhanced screening process. In this way Americans try to conform to what they believe are common social values shared by a majority of their fellow Americans.  Under the onslaught of such self-delusion to resolve the cognitive dissonance, privacy rights are readily sacrificed.

The sad thing is that all this self-delusion was so unnecessary. The cognitive dissonance was critically dependent on media stories citing polling information confirming that a majority of the American public approved of these procedures. However, analyses of these data show that they very likely greatly overstate public support for the enhanced security checks.

One has to ask: How would the public debate over the screenings have followed a different route if public opinion surveys had showed little support for the enhanced TSA screenings? What if the media story was “Polls Show US Public Rejects New Security Screenings”?  One consequence is that there certainly would not have been any cognitive dissonance. Rather than challenging their own gut feelings as to the inappropriateness of these security procedures, the public would have focused on challenging the invasiveness and ultimately the necessity of these procedures. With this new narrative stream, a public debate driven by accurate polling data would undoubtedly have resulted in a more practical and probably safer screening process in which privacy rights of Americans would have been respected and preserved.

It would not have been a victory for the terrorists.

The villains

So who are the villains in this sad little story?

The TSA was callously opportunistic in their use of inaccurate poll data that conveniently supported the enhanced security procedures. As a government agency their job is to do what is best for Americans, not what is best for the TSA. Appreciating the importance of privacy rights to Americans needs to be balanced by appropriate security procedures. This they completely failed to do.

The media was driven by both self-interest as well as a conflict of interest by commissioning polls that produced inaccurate information, and then disseminating this information across the country. This has left Americans with a completely distorted sense of how the country as a whole feels about legitimate privacy concerns and helped to create unnecessary cognitive dissonance among many Americans. There was no disinterested third party (certainly not the pollsters–see below) to advise the media that the polling process was inappropriate. The intent of the polling was to quickly and cheaply create news for publication on the next day.

The pollsters were in the usual conflict of interest situation allowing strategic interests of the media clients to trump the consideration of methodological actions needed to produce accurate data. The latter would have increased the polling costs and required more time for data preparation. Experienced pollsters should know the cost benefit trade-offs of these actions. The responsibility of the pollster is to advise the client on what is necessary methodologically to produce accurate information. This they failed to do.

The victims

And who are the victims?

As usual, it’s we the public. As the unpleasant reality of these enhanced security measures begins to sink in, more recent polls have shown a significant deterioration of support of these measures among the American public. But the genie is out of the bottle. The damage is done. Privacy rights have been lost and it’s always more difficult to regain them than to defend them.

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. How surveys are used in public information has been his interest from day one.
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2 Responses to Polls, Privacy and Security: a Betrayal of Public Trust

  1. Jared Spice says:

    Another good article. This is enhanced screening is nothing more than security theater: total B.S. to make people feel safer. I simply can’t believe that uptight American’s allow strangers to feel up their kids.

  2. Pingback: Police State Charges Woman for Groping TSA Agent :: Stop Austin Scanners!

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