Letter: A school survey and the psychology of numbers
In response to a Vail Daily article published March 9, with the title of “Eagle County Schools finds 55% favor return to five-day week next school year,” I was hoping to point out some of the finer print in the article as well as speak on the psychology of social proof.
The article is accurate as a whole when it comes to the recent survey sent out to parents, teachers, and under-aged students with the intent to find out what was preferred in our community. The headline is very up front with the message that more than half the community wants to return to a five-day week school year. However, this information should be taken in context because Eagle County Schools actually finds only 14% of those who received the survey favor a return to five-day week next school year.
A closer reading starts to paint a different picture, which could drastically impact the onlookers’ interpretation and opinion.
This district survey was given to 12,495 people: staff, parents, and students in grades 4-12. When speaking on the survey results, the article states, “Over five days it saw 3,180 responses — a 25.5% response rate. Among people who responded to the email survey, 55% preferred a return to the five-day school schedule of previous years with a late start for classes on Wednesdays to provide time for teacher planning and training.”
Very accurately the article reports the results, but one phrase that should not go unnoticed is “among people who responded to the email survey…”. Given the 25.5% response rate, 55% percent of respondents respresents only about 14% of those who got the survey.
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This means that Eagle County Schools finds that, not 55% of the community prefers the five-day schedule, but actually 14%. The other half of the survey respondents were not in favor of this schedule, and about 75% of the community members who received the survey sadly did not weigh in with a response in the five-day survey window.
But what does this all mean, and why does it matter?
Words and numbers can have a great deal of power when pushing an agenda, persuading, or lobbying, and to an onlooker, the thought that a majority of their peers are in favor of something can sway one’s views. In social psychology, this is called social proofing.
Social proofing is a phenomenon when, if people are unsure of how to act or think, they will look to others for cues concerning the correct behavior.
Words and numbers have a great deal of power in influencing the human psyche. Therefore, when discussing the important decisions, like returning to a school schedule that was created before the world shift brought on by COVID-19, 55% and 14% are two numbers that can command a very different view of a situation.
I hope that this letter can help to inform the people of Eagle County further in their ability to create their own opinions of this very complicated and difficult matter.