Polling during the Vietnam War

Monday 31 December 2012

The following exercise is an interesting one that makes us think about how we make the decisions that we do.  There are many links to different sociocultural and cognitive theories here.  But first, let's start with the activity.

The Task

During the Vietnam war, polling groups in the United States played a key role in swaying public opinion.  In addition to asking people for their opinion, they also took demographic information about those whom they polled.

Give students the chart below.  Ask them to fill in what they think the break down was as to which groups were most opposed to the war in Vietnam.  Remind them of the relevant mathematics here:

  • Each column must add up to 100%
  • The top row should add up to 225 (which is 75% of 300)
  • The bottom row should add up to 75 (which is 25% of 300).

College education

High school education

Grade school education

Total Adults

% for withdrawal of US troops

75%

%  against withdrawal of US troops

25%

According to Loewen, this is a very common response from students:

College education

High school education

Grade school education

Total Adults

% for withdrawal of US troops

 

90%

 

75%

 

60%

 

75%

%  against withdrawal of US troops

 

10%

 

25%

 

40%

 

25%

After having them fill in the chart, assuming that they will have numbers similar to this, ask them my why they think that this is true.  Why would educated people be more likely to be against a continuation of the war in Vietnam?

After this discussion, show them the actual data:

College education

High school education

Grade school education

Total Adults

% for withdrawal of US troops

 

60%

 

75%

 

80%

 

75%

%  against withdrawal of US troops

 

40%

 

25%

 

20%

 

25%

Discussion

Why do they think that this is actually what happened?  Whether you have them do their own numbers or you have them look at the "most common answers" first and then follow it by the real poll results, why do they think that people make this mistake?

They may argue that it is because the people who would go to war were less educated. The logic would be that those who need to fear going to war are more likely to be against it. However, research has shown that people who expect to go to war tend to support that war, because people rarely don't believe in something that they plan to do. Festinger (1957) found that male college students during World War II, who knew that they were going to fight, were more "pro-war" than skilled electricians and welders, who knew that they were going to work in domestic war materials production.

Cognitive dissonance helps to explain why young men of draft age supported the war more than older men, and why men supported the war more than women. Remember - at this women were not employed to combat positions in the US military.

So, what could explain what we see above? Educated, successful people believe that the society that helped them to be educated and successful is fair. They are invested in the "Just World Hypothesis."  This has been reinforced because they worked hard, and they are successful. They, therefore, attribute their success to their hard work - that is, dispositional factors. They, thus, tend to show more allegiance to the society, while those who are in the lower levels of society tend to be more critical of it.

It is also important to note that Social Identity Theory plays a key role here.  Educated people are over-represented in our governments.  So, every time you turn on the television and see government officials, they are in the educated "in-group." Hence, the educated class see themselves as part of the in-group of those making decisions.

And why do we make the mistake of over-attributing protest to the war to the educated?  It is a combination of hindsight bias and an illusory correlation. We tend to equate educated people with being informed and tolerant. However, sadly this is often not the case.

Adapted from: Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong, by James Loewen, 1995.


Tags: Vietnam, attribution,


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