Reactions to Words Without Context

Ilya posts below about a poll on public attitudes towards terms like “socialism” and “capitalism.” I suspect the polling methodology explains much of the oddity of the results. Notably, the respondents were asked to offer positive or negative reactions to listed words without any context, not to the underlying ideas signified by the words in the context that we are likely to interpret them upon reading the poll. And I suspect that explains some of the strange results.

The page on the poll methodology explains the questioner’s text as follows:

As I read a list of words and phrases, please tell me what your reaction is to each … (First,) do you have a positive or negative reaction to the word/phrase… [INSERT ITEM; RANDOMIZE; OBSERVE FORM SPLITS]? How about [NEXT ITEM]? [IF NECESSARY: do you have a positive or negative reaction to the word/phrase (REPEAT ITEM)]

Notably, this question provides no context. The callers did not say, “I’m going to read off a list of different political ideologies and ways of organizing society, and I want you to tell me whether you have a positive or negative reaction to that ideology.” Instead, they only listed words.

I suspect that methodology explains a lot. In many cases, our reaction to a word in the abstract does not necessarily signal our enthusiasm for the idea in a common context in which it will arise. For example, imagine I ask you whether you have a positive or negative reaction to the phrase “apple pie.” You’re very likely to report a positive reaction. After all, apple pie conjures images of July 4th picnics and American flags. On the other hand, imagine I ask for your reaction to the phrase “french cruller.” The results are likely to be mixed. Cruller is a pretty ugly word, and you might have mixed views of the french. But those results won’t necessarily mean that if you’re trying to figure out what dessert to bring to an event that you can expect more people will like apple pie than french crullers. A reaction to the phrase without any context does not necessarily reflect a reaction to the things that the phrase often represents in a particular context. Sometimes it will, obviously. But sometimes it won’t.

The poll results on the word “progressive” reflect the problem. Most people had a positive reaction to the word “progressive.” Even among Republicans, the word polled a positive 56 to 34. But I suspect that positive polling largely reflects the fact that the word “progressive” is one of those nice and happy words absent any context. I mean, who doesn’t want to be in favor of progress? It’s like being against mom, baseball, and, well, apple pie. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people have positive reactions to ideas that are often labeled progressive. Some people will make the connection, but for others a word will be just a word.

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