At the close of my last column, No. 44, I promised to present the important findings of ATI's three Y2K surveys, conducted in 1998-1999 by Fred Steeper of Market Strategies, Inc, and directed by myself and Hazel Henderson. When I sat down to compose this article, it became apparent that all the important findings that came out of the three surveys could not possibly be covered in one column. So for this column, I selected an issue covered in the first survey (Aug 3-9, 1998): how and why Americans at the time believed the Y2K bug would produce consequences that ran from "no problem" to "utter chaos" with a whole range of opinions in-between. Other interesting topics covered in the three surveys may show up in later columns.
The first question is here labeled Q1:
Q1 "How serious do you think the Y2K problem is going to turn out to be?" using a 1 to 5 scale with 1 not at all serious, 5 extremely serious and "you can use any number between 1 and 5, the bigger the number the more serious of a problem you think it will be?" The response distribution among the five choices is shown in Table 1. Ignore Q2 and Q3 for the moment.
|percent of total sample|
Question Q1 alone has a weakness -- no objective standard. One respondent's "3" might be another's 1 or 2, or for that matter, 4 or 5. To overcome this weakness, we introduced in Q2, three expert scenarios, with title-labels shown in bold.
Y2K --Three Scenarios (in italics)
1. "Some experts on Y2K say it is NOT-AT-ALL-SERIOUS.
They think things are developing something like this:
Y2K will affect only isolated individuals and groups. Businesses are already close to fixing their computer problems that could cause systems to fail. Those companies which are a little behind -- when they feel the hot breath of the deadline getting close -- will be able to push to finish on time. It will be a big effort, no doubt, but they'll make it. There will be a few spectacular failures around the world that the media will hype, but in the big picture they will not amount to anything."
2. "Some experts on Y2K say it is SERIOUS. They
think the problem is developing something like this:
Some individuals will be inconvenienced, some corporations will fail, but not one person in a hundred will suffer any real hardships, and for most of them such hardships will last a few days or a few weeks at most. Most people will have few if any problems. Although the whole thing may be considered a disaster, measured by lives or money, it will be no worse than the greatest storm or other major natural disasters that regularly occur somewhere in the world."
3. "Some experts on Y2K say it is an EXTREMELY SERIOUS problem. They
think that it is developing something like this:
Y2K is one of the most serious problems the modern world has ever faced. It is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars more to fix it. There are not nearly enough qualified technicians to fix it or could be trained to fix it in time to be ready for the new century. The economy will be disrupted with lengthy shut-downs of electricity supplies and major industries. There will be widespread dislocation and possibly chaos, even a collapse of law and order at all levels of government."
Following each scenario the interviewer said, "I'd like to ask how you react to that view of the problem as" [respectively] "Not at all serious" /"Serious" /"Extremely serious". How likely do you think that things will develop in this way? Very likely, somewhat likely, or not at all likely?" The responses and analysis, omitted here, can be found in ATI #30 Full Report.
Next, the interviewer said: "Now that you have heard the experts' views, I am going to ask a question that I asked before. How serious do YOU think the Y2K problem is going to turn out to be, on a scale of 1 to 5. This time, ONE means you agree most with the experts’ NOT AT ALL SERIOUS view. THREE now means you agree most with the experts’ view of SERIOUS. FIVE means you agree most with the experts’ view of EXTREMELY SERIOUS. You can use any number between one and five." — and "If you think it is LESS serious than any of the experts believe, you could also say 'zero'. If you think it is MORE serious than any of the experts say, you could even say 'six'. Where do you stand on the experts' scale?"
In Table 1, the second column Q2 gives the percentages answering for each scale choice, with one simplification: the zero scale-choice has been collapsed into scale-choice 1 and the 6 scale-choice has been collapsed into scale-choice 5. The same is true of Q3, to be discussed later, so that all three question-responses only show substantive choices, 1 through 5, or DK (Don't Know or No Answer).
The people's scale-choices shifted substantially downward to less-serious, when they were exposed to the experts’ views of seriousness, as given in the three scenarios. A lot of people had simply not expected Y2K to be so serious. In both Q1 and Q2, however, the most common reply was the median "3" and the replies do leave substantial fractions of the public in both the less serious (1 and 2) and more serious (4 and 5) categories.
Q3, the last question on this topic is an example of what is called the "debate format," that goes like this. Reasons are given why some experts have a vested interest in making Y2K loom as more serious and other experts have an interest in making Y2K seem less serious. Then, after respondents have been exposed to the reasons for experts to hype the seriousness of Y2K up or down, Q3 re-asks Q2, with no changes. The results are shown in Table 1 with almost no change from Q2 to Q3. As we will explain later, that does not mean that very few people made changes.
Here are the opposing arguments used to introduce Q3:
"Some believe that experts who say Y2K is a big problem are simply trying to make money off it. They say that these experts — like corporate lawyers, computer consultants, and media executives — exaggerate the problem to scare people into hiring them or reading their magazines and papers and watching their TV channels."
"Others think that companies downplay the problem trying to avoid law suits. Those who think the Y2K problem is very serious believe that others just do not know as much about the problem as they do. Most top U.S. leaders do think the problem is pretty serious. Those ideas might or might not make you want to change your answer."
The fact that there was almost no visible change in the findings of Q2 and Q3 is misleading. As ATI has often found with debate format questions, the gross changes are much higher than the net changes. In this case, it turns out that 23.7% of the sample that responded to Q2 changed their status choices at least by one point in Q3. On the other hand, the net change was a mere 0.9%. The gross-change to net-change ratio is a whopping 27 to 1! This finding adds another example re-enforcing the ATI hypothesis of "dynamic equilibrium", first explained on p. 216 of my book "Locating Consensus for Democracy – a Ten-Year U.S. Experiment", 1998 ATI, and more recently in polling critic columns No. 19, "Can Polls Educate People?", No. 38 "Political Polling is Getting Better", and in "Spot the Spin – The Fun Way to Keep Democracy Alive and Elections Honest", Alan F. Kay, Trafford Publishing, 2004, on page 40.
Dynamic equilibrium theory suggests that large group audiences (not just samples of the general public) that are in some equilibrium on an issue may be moved substantially by an effective one-sided argument (Example, a majority can become a minority, e.g. a 60-40 split may shift to 41-59). When there is a significant shift, if someone else equally persuasive takes an opportunity to move that audience in the opposite direction, the audience will often largely wind up close to its original equilibrium position. Still, significant changes can take place. For example, if that equally persuasive "someone else" took the opportunity to move the audience in an entirely different direction (a "third" way), that might make a significant change in the audience's position on the issue.
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