At the beginning of this month, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) issued a press release of the results of a questionnaire presented to some 7,000 citizens over the course of 2002, revealing that the citizens of Israel are happy with their lives. Under the section "General satisfaction with life," the CBS stated that "83 percent of the general adult population in Israel is satisfied or very satisfied with life."
The questionnaire's results were warmly received by some of the media and with skepticism by others. After all, one has to admit that satisfaction with life is not always associated with the general atmosphere in Israel.
Haaretz and the Dialogue research institute, under the direction of Prof. Camil Fuchs, repeated the CBS survey among a representative sample of the Jewish population. The results reinforced the main finding presented by the CBS, with some 80 percent of those polled saying they are "fairly satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their lives.
Even so, a portion of the Haaretz-Dialogue survey spoiled this rosy picture. It is important to note that when people were given the opportunity to say "fairly satisfied," 45 percent chose this option, compared with 35 percent who chose "very satisfied."
Some 40 percent feel that people in their immediate surroundings are not happy with their lives, about 50 percent of the country's citizens are dissatisfied with their economic situations and their personal security, and 85 percent of those polled are "not very satisfied" or "not satisfied at all" with the state of the country. Hence, the general picture portrayed is one of a country whose residents are still smiling - in spite of everything.
The 85th question
Back to the results of the CBS survey. It is important to note that the CBS survey polled a mega-sampling of 7,000 Israelis in face-to-face interviews, making it very difficult to argue with its results. The CBS survey shows that not only are the vast majority of Israelis satisfied with life, but also that 82 percent are happy with their workplaces too (and, perhaps, with the fact that they have jobs). Some 94 percent said they were happy with there relationships with their families and 77 percent defined themselves as being in good health.
So, is there nothing to complain about? Not exactly. The CBS questionnaire asked how satisfied people were with the economic situation, and it turned out that about half the country's citizens are not really happy with it.
There are other problems too: The CBS questionnaire had 93 questions. After completing the exhausting stage of filling out the particulars of all their family members, respondents were asked to answer questions each of which had 3 or 4 possible answers.
The questions were varied and covered personal welfare issues: "Are you satisfied with the physical condition of your home?"; "Are your happy with the public transportation arrangements in your neighborhood?"; "Can you feed yourself without assistance?"; "Are you happy with your relationship with your friends?"; "In the past 12 months, have you been physically harmed? Has anyone hit you or injured you?"; and so on.
The 85th question - "In general, are you satisfied with your life?" - was the one the prompted all the hoopla. There were 4 possible answers: "Very satisfied;" "Satisfied;" "Not very satisfied;" and "Not satisfied at all."
The CBS gave Haaretz the questionnaire, which was passed on to some of the senior statisticians and pollsters in Israel. They pointed out the fundamental faults in the manner in which the questionnaire was built. There were also some who wondered if it was even the CBS's role to invest such great effort in examining the feelings of the country's citizens toward their mothers-in-law.
"It is hard to believe that the CBS built the questionnaire this way," said one senior statistician, who asked to remain anonymous. "In essence, the CBS dictated the dimensions whereby satisfaction with life is measured. It redefines the term `life' and directs people to give certain answers. If the question regarding satisfaction with life had been at the beginning of the questionnaire, people would have answered according to how they view the term `life.' But after 80 or so questions, the respondent understands that he is supposed to relate to `satisfied with life' as the questionnaire defines it."
"There is no doubt that all the questions that preceded question 85 influenced the summing-up question," agrees another senior statistician, who has been working with surveys for many years.
Another experienced survey researcher contended that the question was as meaningless as the answer. "Someone digs into your private life for two minutes and asks you if you are satisfied with life. What are you going to do, start complaining?" he says. "The respondent said he was satisfied, but why? Because he is not ill? I would take this answer as seriously as the manner in which the question was asked."
A meaningless question
To test this criticism, the "satisfaction with life" question was placed first in the Haaretz-Dialogue survey. The number of respondents who said they were very satisfied or fairly satisfied dropped a little, to 80 percent, but it is worth noting that Dialogue, unlike the CBS, allowed respondents to answer that they are "fairly satisfied," meaning a lukewarm yes. Almost half the survey's participants - 45 percent - chose this option.
"The moment you ask a person if he is satisfied with his life, he will immediately focus on his feelings: My children are fine; I'm not unemployed; there is a God in heaven; so why should I not be satisfied?" explains Fuchs. "It doesn't matter if it is question number 85 or question number 1; the question itself draws an answer aimed at social desirability. It is not politically correct to say you're in a bad way."
In other words, the question appears to be meaningless. Indeed, a closer examination of the answers to other questions reveals how much we tend to conceal our true situation. When we asked our respondents, "Do you feel that most of the people in your immediate surroundings are generally satisfied or dissatisfied with their lives?", 40 percent answered that the people around them are not satisfied with life. What's more, while 36 percent responded that they are "very satisfied" with their own lives, only 7 percent said their friends are "very satisfied with their lives."
"Social desirability drives us crazy," says Fuchs. "We say that we are happy regardless of our true situation because that is what we are expected to say. The moment we are asked about our friends, however, we feel freer to tell the truth. After all, it is unreasonable that everyone says of himself that he is very satisfied, but that those around him are less satisfied."
This conflict found expression in another part of the Haaretz survey. As stated above, 85 percent of the respondents reported being dissatisfied with the state of the country; but when we asked them what score would reflect their feelings toward their lives in general, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing despair and 10 representing hope, almost 80 percent awarded themselves a score of 7 or higher. In addition, when asked if they would prefer to live in another Western country, almost 80 percent answered that they would "prefer" or "greatly prefer" living in Israel.
On the surface, it seems that Israeli citizens draw a clear distinction between their personal lives and the state of the country. This distinction is exposed as being artificial, however, just like the distinction between the CBS's "personal welfare" questionnaire and the conscious decision not to ask about "the situation in the country."
The question that illustrates this more than anything is the last question in the Haaretz-Dialogue questionnaire: "In what area could a change significantly improve your satisfaction with your life?"
Almost 35 percent responded that a change in the situation in the country would have the greatest effect on improving their satisfaction with life. About 27 percent cited their economic situation; 15 percent would like an improvement in their health or that of their close relatives; 9 percent chose the "personal security" option; and 8 percent would be happy with an "improvement in their family and romantic relationships."
These results show that despite the fact that Israelis theoretically tend to differentiate between their personal situations (83 percent are satisfied) and the situation in the country (85 are not satisfied), when they are asked what would improve their personal lives, one in three Israelis chose an improvement in the state of the country as the change that would make their lives better.
"This is similar to the joke about a surveyor who wants to know one word about how you are faring," suggests Fuchs, "`Well,' replies the respondent. `And in two words?' continues the surveyor. `Not well,' replies the interviewee."
"Although the CBS purposely avoided questions connected to the functioning of the government," says another survey expert, "it is impossible to declare unequivocally that Israelis are satisfied with their lives without relating to the situation in which they are rooted. The functioning of the government has an effect on our personal welfare no less than the number of rooms in our homes."
Fuchs offers another explanation for the answers. "We are familiar with the phenomenon in which people try to be consistent in their responses in order not to look stupid in front of the pollster," he says. "Many of the interviewees responded that they are satisfied with their lives. Then they are asked if they would prefer to live somewhere else, so they think to themselves: I have already said I am satisfied with my life, so they answer, `Yes, I prefer living here.'"
Ordered by the budgets department
The CBS survey found that about half the country's citizens are satisfied with the economic situation. The question about the economic situation is asked after 86 other questions and before a few more about the respondent's personal situation, such as "Do you make it to the end of the month [without going into overdraft]?" "Are your mortgage payments burdensome?" and so forth.
"Why does the summation question come before the other questions?" asks one statistician. "Was the CBS afraid that if they reminded people that they were actually collapsing under their load, they would alter their answer? Is there any connection to the fact that the survey was ordered by the budgets department [of the Finance Ministry]? I truly hope that this was not done on purpose."
It might actually be preferable for the budgets department, which for years has been constantly forcing us to tighten our belts and cutting into our living flesh, would desist from ordering surveys about how we feel.
The Haaretz survey, like the CBS one, shows that 53 percent of respondents are not very satisfied or not satisfied at all with the economic situation. Even so, considering the country's current economic crisis, if 47 percent are satisfied or fairly satisfied, it's not so bad. One out of every two citizens claims his economic situation is good.
"When the data shows there is 10 percent unemployment, it is an astronomical figure; but in the survey, just 10 percent of participants were unemployed, while 90 percent had jobs," says Fuchs, explaining the paradox. "How many disabled can't make it to the end of the month? How many people who barely have money for bread do we reach with our telephone surveys, or how many even have a telephone to be able to answer our questions? From a quality point of view, the effect of these people on society is destructive; but from a quantitative perspective, they are only a few percent."
Still, it appears that they have a big influence. Thus, for example, one out of four respondents feels that not only is his economic situation not going to improve in the next few years, it is going to get worse.
And what about personal security? Here, too, the country is divided. When we asked "Are you satisfied with your personal security?", 53 percent of the respondents said that they are satisfied or very satisfied, while 47 percent said not very satisfied or not satisfied at all.
Why is it even their business?
"It seems strange to me that the CBS focused on the questions it did, and I say this because once I had a lot of respect for it," says Prof. Avi Degani, director of the Geocartography opinion poll company.
Another senior statistician wondered about what motivated those who ordered the survey. "They interviewed 7,000 people in order to determine their level of satisfaction among the citizens? That's what the CBS is doing these days? Is that not a waste of money? And anyway, why all of a sudden is the Finance Ministry interested in such questions?"
Even Dori Shadmon, managing director of Teleseker, expressed his astonishment at the types of questions the CBS chose to ask Israeli citizens. "I am quite surprised that the CBS people are dealing with public opinion polls. It is not their field."
Fuchs raises another issue: Clause 13 of the Statistics Law (1975) states that "A person must answer, to the best of his knowledge and belief, any question asked by the statistician or an authorized worker." Fuchs contends that the fact the survey was conducted by the CBS puts the citizens in a dilemma. "Is the CBS obliging me by law to answer if I am satisfied with my life? Did they think of that before they approached the citizens?"
We're not Big Brother
Idit Gates, head of the social and welfare indicators field at the Central Bureau of Statistics, says that the questionnaire was designed to examine personal well-being issues without relating to the government's activities.
"As an arm of the government, we would be acting as Big Brother if we asked what the citizens think of the government," she says in response to the criticism expressed in the accompanying article.
"We are not doing election surveys. We structured the questions such that their sequence would lead the interviewee to respond regarding his personal welfare," explains Gates, adding that the question regarding the economic situation was asked before the other economic questions on purpose.
"We are careful with economic questions because they cause people to clam up. Furthermore, the question about `your economic situation' is very clear. After all, people know about their own economic situation. I am sure that no one would have changed their mind if we had moved the question about the economic situation to after the other economic questions."
Gates rejects the contention that that the bureau is obliging people to answer the questions by law. "There has never been any instance in which we charged someone who did not want to answer [questions]. The fact is that there are people who chose not to answer certain questions and nothing happened.
"I was not surprised," Gates continued, regarding the responses. "After all, we are not the ones going through a million army roadblocks on our way home. If a person says that all in all he is okay, of course in the end he will answer that he is satisfied." (Yuval Dror)
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