Public opinion is the middle ground between what people say in public and think in private.
Publicly, people say they listen to Radio-Canada, read the more intellectual Le Devoir newspaper, regularly peruse the thoughtful analyses found in l’Actualité magazine and visit serious websites to read about international news and politics. In reality, they watch the more entertaining programs on TVA, read the tabloid newspaper Le Journal de Montréal, read gossip magazines and, as for their websites….Lets`s just say they’re very often NSFW.
Quebecers say they promote equality for women, are very often to minorities and support gay marriage. They eat organic food, exercise regularly, never drink and drive and dislike fighting in hockey. Oh, and they also want wold peace.
But the reality is often quite different. That’s why survey-givers have developed all sots of techniques to get beyond what’s socially acceptable. The methods used are sophisticated: they include eye tracking to see what the respondents are looking at, and physiological tests to assess how their bodies are reacting, and even neuromarketing to monitor what stimulates their brain. We also use qualitative techniques, such as discussion groups, for a deeper analysis. Rather than aiming for a simple answer to a question, this technique helps us get insight into the reasons behind the response. The meetings take place in interview rooms with one-way windows, and conversations are recorded, filmed and analyzed in real time. People in general, and Quebecers in particular, find the setting conductive to confiding and sharing their most personal experiences without embarrassment. Participants in these groups usually enjoy the experience. People like to give their opinions and discuss a variety of topics. The results of this research technique are very different from one country to another.
In France, the group meetings take three hours, since the French never seem to have enough time to share their thoughts, make loud pronouncements and even contradict themselves. In Maghreb, people tend to respond with a certain obstinacy, while in Britain the conversation flows freely with the utmost politeness. In China, contentious subjects are avoided, while in the United States you can get to the heart of things without wasting any time. In Toronto, participants tend to be very wary – for the apparent reason that one out of every two people were born outside the country, hence they are worried that our research will end up in the hands of the RCMP. In Quebec, the challenge is to get past the consensus that tends to be built all too quickly. Quebecers don’t like to quarrel. Within minutes, everyone agrees and the discussion is over. To go further, we had to invent new approaches that could break through this artificial consensus. Playing the devil’s advocate can sometimes be very informative and rewarding. Here are three concrete examples:
Several years ago, we tested Quebecer’s reactions to racism. Obviously, no one openly admitted to being racist. To get past the social consensus, we invited a person from a visible minority to take a seat in the room before the meeting. Everyone who entered afterward sat as far as possible from our accomplice – except for one individual, who immediately took a seat next to him. After observing this, we asked the person from the visible minority to leave the room. The scene we had staged helped us initiate a real discussion about behavior; we were able to get past what is socially acceptable. People told us they don’t believe they are racist, but they also said they rarely interacted with people from other ethnocultural communities. The only person who told us they do have regular interaction, in fact, was the one who took a seat beside our ”secret agent.” After interviewing a number of groups, we started to see a pattern. the more people interacted with members of other communities, the less racist behavior they displayed. The truth soon became quite clear. Racism is the fear of difference and the unknown.
On another occasion, we tested a new type of weight-loss program for a competitor of Weight Watchers. Once again, consensus came too quickly, this time on the subject of Quebecer’s purported healthy eating habits. to nip this in the bud, we placed chips, candy and soft drinks in the middle of the table. while the participants calmly discussed Quebecers’ commendable eating habits, they generously helped themselves to the offering of junk food – except for those who were clearly overweight, who didn’t touch a thing. One participant even confessed that he just couldn’t stop eating. He often went for a Big Mac just an hour before dinner, then ate a salad later in front of his kids. ”I never eat junk food in front of people because I don’t want to be judged.” This experience showed that it’s the perception of others that often hurts us most. The discussion group allowed my client to approach the question of obesity from a different perspective, and thereby to make their advertising campaign more effective. To find new solution, you often need to look at a problem from a new angle.
we conduct many surveys with young people to learn about new trends. On one occasion, we were working with an insurance company and trying to figure out why young people drive so fast. No argument could convince them to lighten up on the gas pedal: They loved speed and weren’t bothered by the risk of crashing. Group after group was interviewed, and no new insights came of the discussion. then I had the idea of inviting participants in couples. that strategy led to a crucial discovery. A young person we’d already talked with repeated that he loved driving fast and didn’t care about having a crash, but that one possibility obsessed him: the idea that his girlfriend could be hurt. the only thing that could make him slow down was the fear of injuring his partner. That was his weak point.
The continuous search fro consensus often gets in the way of true debate. We need discussion: to fight against social prejudice about skin color, body type and even past mistakes. The reason I still do this work, 30 years into my career, is because of those magic moments that make you feel like you can make a difference by helping form a better understanding of the Quebec psyche. That’s the key to our success.