Examples from our individual decisions about economics, elections and the flu
Notions addressed: A growing number of decisions about individuals, groups and societies are based on personal information or information derived from it
We must admit it: our individual decisions, our behaviours and our opinions are often influenced by information about what our fellow citizens do, think or experience. These information items come, for example, from various opinion polls or statistical compilations, often as summarized by the media.
Thanks to computers, it is now possible to manipulate and transform such information in many ways.
Thanks to the web, it is possible to redistribute such information in new interactive forms that facilitate individual decision making … and even measure the impact on the community afterward.
Our economic behaviours
The global and local economies are going through some crisis for already over a year or so. How many of us during that period have made decisions based as much on statistics published by the media than on our personal situation? This may have been a decision to change our lifestyle or not; that of saving more money or not; to reduce our personal debts or not; to make a big purchase or not; to change employment or not; may be even to have a child or not.
Statistics compiled from our fellow citizens’ statements form in our mind a backdrop to the setting in which we conduct our personal economic lives. Are we many or few to state that we are unemployed? Are we many or few to say that we are confident in regard to our personal future? Numerous to tell that we are indebted? Numerous to tell that we think the economy will go better?
Our own economic situation is obviously crucial to our individual decisions. However, the opinion of others is often a factor that we also take seriously.
Individual citizens are not the only ones to keep an eye on the statistics. Heads of business and social organizations as well. Their decisions in regard to hiring, investment and development of activities also depend as much on others’ opinion than on the situation of their own organization.
Hence the importance that the governments and other major economic actors attach to how statistics should be construed so that morale and some cautious optimism could be maintained among citizens, employees, consumers and entrepreneurs.
Our electoral behaviour
Let me talk again about elections: this process is so revealing of the role that information can simultaneously play in our individual and collective lives.
As I write these lines, it is unclear if Canada will be in election or not in a few weeks or months. However, if the trends observed in recent elections continue, one would expect that numerous Canadians, less and less loyal to a particular political party, will again wait until the last minute to fix their choice. Many will decide based on statistics about the voting intentions of their fellow citizens. Several individual scenarios can be envisaged.
Some who prefer stable governments could decide to vote for the party which, according to the polls, is the most likely form a majority government, regardless of which party and what its program is. Will do similarly those who want their local member of Parliament to be from the party forming the government.
Conversely, others who have developed a taste for minority governments could decide, from the same polls, to vote in favour of an opposition party’s candidate to reduce the number of MPs of the party which will likely form the government.
Others who, without being faithful to any particular party, nevertheless have political or ideological preferences may choose to vote locally for the candidate whose election would favour the emergence of a government leaning on one political side, or conversely, would block the path to government of the opposite side.
Finally, some who find that nothing could change the outcomes locally or across Canada could decide:
- either to vote, regardless of any electoral calculation, for the candidate of the party with which they have the greatest affinity (and, in our current financing system of the federal political parties, may receive from the State around two dollars per year for each vote obtained);
- or, not vote at all because their vote cannot make any difference.
It is even probable that many voters will swing back and forth from one scenario to another in accordance to the evolution of voting intentions as revealed by the polls.
Then, one could easily understand how such late decisions can cause growing headaches among electoral strategists…
Sophisticated information systems
Such individual choice making is possible in Canada because the media publish numerous reliable opinion polls which together provide a relatively accurate picture of the evolution of voting intentions.
Such decisions are also possible because results and polls data from previous elections are widely available in order to establish historical and geographical databases. These data feed mathematical models that translate the surveys’ results of the current electoral campaign into numbers of MPs for each party. These models can then assess which party is likely to form the next majority or minority government against which opposition. They can also estimate which candidate from which party may win in each riding.
Web 2.0 applications are now used to ask ordinary citizens to contribute to the refinement of elections results projections by providing accounts on what is affecting the electoral trends in their respective ridings.
Finally, pressure groups may use these projections to provide riding by riding vote recommendations to their followers in support of a particular cause: vote for this sympathetic candidate who has a real chance to win; or vote as it pleases you, because the leading candidate is assured of winning anyway).
Among the collective, the individual does not want to remain insignificant
One of the risks presented by elections projections modelling is becoming aware of the statistical insignificance of our individual vote.
Indeed, in the rare hypothetical case where two candidates would be only one vote apart, my ballot has a decisive impact. It is my vote that elects one or the other. Every single vote counts, as they say.
Already with a small difference of 100 votes, my vote loses much weight. By withdrawing my vote for one (minus 1) to give it to the other (plus 1), my ballot moves the results by 2 votes in all: to a 102 votes or a 98 gap depending on whether I vote for or against the candidate in advance. At 100 votes apart, my vote now weighs no more than 1/50 or 2% of the result.
At 1,000 votes, my vote weighs no more than 1/500 or 0.2% of the results. At 5,000 votes apart, a paltry 0.04%.
And this is only if I vote for one of the riding’s two strongest candidates. If I vote for a third candidate, the weight of my vote becomes statistically inconsequential.
Why vote then, now that I know beforehand that my vote will not make any difference about who will be elected in my riding and who will form the government?
Some take comfort in saying that their vote will increase public funding for their favourite party of a small two dollars per year. Others are now beginning to use Web 2.0 applications to increase the weight and effect of their vote through some kind of online votes exchange. For example, I would vote for party A, but it has no chance in my riding where the race is rather between B and C parties. In another corner of the country, another person would vote C, but the race is between A and B in her riding. Through the web we can make contact and agree to exchange our votes: I’m going to vote C in my riding and the other person will vote A in hers. As a result, we each contributed a little more meaningfully to elect a candidate of our respective preferred party.
People do not want to be stuck in an irrelevant position. They prefer to make a difference. Statistics measure the weight one can have, and therefore can help individuals make a decision. A very recent experience by journalists shows us how much so.
Getting vaccinated for oneself or for others?
On September 15, 2009, Radio-Canada’s La Facture TV show asked the following question to people on the street in Montreal:
“A vaccination campaign will soon be launched against A(H1N1) influenza. Canada has ordered 50 million doses of vaccines to be distributed in the provinces. Will you get vaccinated? ”
Several of those interviewed answered no. Among them, many considered they were in good health condition and that the risks were low for them.
Then, they were given the information that Toronto researchers have studied the link between vaccination and mortality rates in the population over 10 years, from 1996 to 2005. While the average vaccination rate had doubled in Ontario, mortality associated with influenza was reduced by three quarters. Considering these figures, may vaccination be regarded as an act of social responsibility? Would these numbers make them reconsider their intention not to be vaccinated?
A majority of those who had answered “no” said that, indeed, such figures made them question their position. If it was indeed the case that vaccination helps to protect others, they would consider the opportunity to be vaccinated even if they do not need it personally.
The researchers’ article, “The Effect of Universal Influenza Immunization on Mortality and Health Care Use,” was published in the Public Library of Science Medicine Journal, an online journal, freely available and free on the Web under Creative Commons license. It is an interesting reading. First, the paper argues that, in Ontario, the flu vaccination of healthy citizens increases the protection of most vulnerable citizens. We may add that healthy people benefit indirectly from such protection as it lower health care costs that must be paid with their taxes. On the other hand, we observe that the article is written in scientific jargon and with many cautions about the conclusions to be drawn. Such text requires translation from the media and the public health authorities.
Thus, it is not sufficient that statistical data and analysis are made readily available. They must become understandable and usable by citizens so that they can benefit from them, including for personal decision-making.
A world informed on itself by statistics
Thus, we observe:
- a production of information about individuals;
- that permits the production of collective statistics;
- that are used in public debates;
- to help refine portraits of a community’s situation;
- that serve individuals to understand and to decide for themselves and for others.
Whether for economic, electoral and health purposes, the mere production of information is not enough. It takes multiple intermediaries who process it, analyze it, give it meaning, disseminate it, and make it usable in various contexts.
Increasingly our individual decisions, behaviours and opinions will be conditioned by the information we get on what our fellow citizens do, think and experience. We are therefore influenced by the work on the information made by many people and organizations serving as intermediaries between us all and… all of us.