Researchers were able to apply quantum theory — typically used to explain the behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level — to figure out a strange pattern regarding how people respond to survey questions.
“Human behavior is very sensitive to context. It may be as context-sensitive as the actions of some of the particles that quantum physicists study,” said lead author Zheng Wang, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.
“By using quantum theory, we were able to predict a surprising regularity in human behavior with unusual accuracy for the social sciences in a large set of different surveys.”
In fact, the researchers found the exact same pattern in 70 nationally representative surveys from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, as well as in two laboratory experiments. Most of the national surveys included more than 1,000 respondents.
These new findings tackled an issue that has long faced scientists using survey data or any self-report data: that is, the order in which some questions are asked on a survey can change how people respond. This is why survey organizations often change the order of questions among respondents in an effort to cancel out this effect.
“Researchers have thought of these question-order effects as some kind of unexplainable carry-over effects or noise,” Wang said. “But our results suggest that some of these effects may not be mere nuisance, but actually are something more essential to human behavior.”
For example, one of the surveys used in the study was a Gallup poll that asked Americans whether Bill Clinton was honest and trustworthy and whether Al Gore was honest and trustworthy.
The survey changed the order in which these questions were asked and, as expected, there were question-order effects found. When respondents were asked about Clinton first, 49% said that both Clinton and Gore were trustworthy. But when respondents were asked about Gore first, 56% said that both were trustworthy.
The pattern that quantum theory predicted was that the number of people who switch from “yes-yes” to “no-no” when the question order is reversed must be balanced by the number of people who switch in the opposite direction.
Indeed, the number of people who said “no-no” — that both Clinton and Gore were not trustworthy — went from 28 percent when the Clinton question was asked first to 21 percent when Gore was first. That seven percent decline essentially cancels out the 7 percent increase in the number of people who said “yes-yes” when the question order was reversed.
Likewise, the number of people who switched from “yes-no” to “no-yes” was offset by the number of people who switched in the opposite direction. The researchers name this phenomenon “quantum question equality.” They found it in every single survey studied.
“When you think about it from our normal social science perspective, the finding is very bizarre,” Wang said. “There’s no reason to expect that people would always change their responses in such a systematical way, from survey to survey to create this pattern.”
“But from a quantum perspective, the finding makes perfect sense,” Wang said. It is true according to what is called the law of reciprocity in quantum theory. Like much of quantum theory, the law of reciprocity is complex and difficult for most people to understand, but it has to do with the transition from one state of a system to another.
Wang said one of the most important aspects of the study was that quantum theory allowed the researchers to achieve a level of accuracy rarely found when studying human behavior.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Source: Ohio State University