Thursday, October 11, 2012

Undecided on Big Bird? Probably not.

The Volokh Conspiracy has a post about a survey in Virginia that asked people their opinions about President Obama, Mitt Romney, and Big Bird.  Professor Volokh notes that more people have a favorable opinion about Big Bird than have a favorable opinion about either President Obama or Governor Romney. 

One could quibble about the fact that the question about President Obama concerned job approval and the questions about Governor Romney and Big Bird were about favorability.  However, that particular quibble is not relevant to this post.  What struck me about the post is that the undecideds on the questions concerning President Obama and Governor Romney were 2% and 4%, respectively.  34% of the people who answered the question about Big Bird said they were undecided about whether they had a favorable view of Big Bird.  How can this be?

One possible explanation is that many people are not familiar with Big Bird because he appears on a low-rated show on PBS.  However, some studies say that 95% of all preschoolers have watched Sesame Street.  Given that the show-with Big Bird on it-has been on for more than 40 years, I highly doubt that 34% of people responding to the survey did not know who Big Bird was.

I suspect that the high number of undecideds has more to do with the "Bradley Effect."  The Bradley Effect is mostly described in terms of race.  That survey respondents feel pressure to give an answer that is publicly acceptable when asked for their opinions.  People recognize that saying they do not like Big Bird is not a socially acceptable thing to do.  So some people just say they are undecided as to whether or not they like Big Bird.  If the Bradley Effect applies to the Virginia survey, then Big Bird's negatives are right up there with Governor Romney's and a little below the job disapproval ratings of President Obama.



  1. The Bradley Effect is a good hypothesis, but I have another one. Let's call my the theory the "what kind of question is that?" theory. Were somebody to ask me if I have a "favorable" impression of Big Bird, and were I to try to answer "seriously," I would have to think very, very hard because at first blush I have no idea I'm supposed to consider. Is the question about the character of Big Bird? In other words, did I like the Big Bird parts of "Sesame Street" when I watched it? Or whether he's among my favorite muppets? (Answer: not really, I liked Oscar the Grouch. But I did like Snuffleupagus, who only appeared with Big Bird when I was growing up.) Or is the question really about whether I like the idea of Big Bird, in some vaporous way? Or what?

    When I have been surveyed I usually try to answer honestly but my number one goal is to answer quickly. In the face of so many questions running through my head, I think it's likely that I would just say "pass" on the Big Bird question.

  2. Perhaps although I think the question is more basic than you make it out to be. I would probably say yes to the favorability question simply because the Big Bird parts of the show do not cause me to want to change the channel. Big Bird isn't my favorite muppet but I don't view him unfavorably. The greatest muppets are Guy Smiley, the Count, and Cookie Monster.

  3. I'm sure it is meant to be basic. The problem is that the context. If you are asked whether you have a "favorable" impression of Mitt Romney, that is going to call to mind different consideration than whether you have a favorable impression of Big Bird. It creates some serious cognitive whiplash to consider both of the questions together.

  4. My opinion is that the answer lies behind the 52% favorable view of Romney. Romney fans are probably very aware that Romney claimed he would cut PBS subsidies. A Romney supporter may feel he/she is a traitor to the Romney campaign by admitting a favorable opinion of Big Bird. (Liking Big Bird = liking Obama.) However, due to the Bradley Effect one cannot claim an unfavorable opinion of Big Bird. (It's Sesame Street- what kind of person doesn't like Sesame Street?!) Therefore the 'undecided' choice fits best.
    And, clearly, Grover is the best muppet. His waiter bits are the bomb.

  5. That is a fair point about the subsidies, Unknown. Grover's waiter bits are great. That does not take away from the supreme awsomeness of Guy Smiley.


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