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July 15, 2003

Sex and Statistics

One thing to remember about surveys is that odd or strange results often can be explained by a simple answer: people lied.

A long-time question has been how to explain the fact that men report having far more sexual partners than women, since it raises the question of who the men are having sex with.

The conventional answer has been that men are likely inflating their number of partners, but a new study suggests that it is women who systematically downplay the number of their partners.

The study showed that women answering a conventional survey report far fewer partners than women who think they are rigged up to a lie detecter. Men, however, give roughly the same answer in either instance.

It's a fun result culturally, but it's also a good reminder that poll answers are heavily shaped by expectations of what a person thinks the pollster will approve. Even if the results are generally anonymous, people are embarassed if even one person, the pollster, hears them admit something seemingly shameful.

So if an answer to a question in a poll has a shameful possibility, always assume that number is undercounted.

Posted by Nathan at July 15, 2003 06:49 PM