Drifting in and out of consciousness (oxfordhacker) wrote,
Drifting in and out of consciousness

Our survey says...

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the stuff I've been writing for morning pages has been about morning pages, and a lot of that has been wondering why I started this exercise in the first place and what I hope to get out of it. I'm not someone with grand artistic aspirations (or indeed any aspirations, really) so I don't see it as a stepping stone to finally writing that novel, or even that fic. It's a response to finding myself with time to kill in the mornings, but it would be much simpler and more characteristic for me to spend that time sleeping or reading, so why have I taken this alternative? Naturally this question had been on my mind while I was writing, and a couple of days ago a possible answer occurred to me, straight out of left-field.

A few weeks before I started, spireddotcom posted to dreamingspires with a link to a survey. It was from Oxford's local health services and asked questions about mental wellbeing, and I clicked through and took it, as one does. The most interesting bit was on the final page, where it asked what one thing would make your life better, and what would make it worse. Worse was easy: losing tinyjo. Better was trickier, though. I really gave it some thought, not just to do my duty as a citizen by making the survey as accurate as possible, you understand, but because it struck me as a pretty useful thing to know about myself. I left that page up on screen while I went for a cup of tea and tried to distill my observations of my behaviour into one simple bullet point. Somewhat to my surprise, what I came up with was 'being more creative', or words to that effect. I felt that might be useful for the surveyors, not that I deem myself especially likely to avail myself of any council-provided creativity-inspiring facilities, but I think they'd be a Good Thing. It was also something of a revelation for me, one which I'm sure played a part in me taking up morning pages, and subsequently NaBloPoMo.

Bizarrely, this isn't the first time I've been influenced by a council survey. Back in 2005 damiancugley linked to
survey about cycling which I remember looking at at the time. I didn't even bother filling this one in, because printing out and posting something was (and is) much more effort that I'm willing to go to. However, I did read it and think about my answers. Again, the meat was on the final page, where they asked 'Under what circumstances would you: Ride on the pavement? / Ride through a red light? / Ride without working lights on your bicycle during lighting up time?' By forcing me to consider my behaviour shorn of the nuance, justification and excitement involved in the acts themselves, it made me realise that - objectively - I occasionally cycled like a dick. Having realised that, I had little choice but to modify my behaviour.

It's intriguing to find that two Oxford council surveys have affected me like this, and an ironic contrast to those memetic surveys that purport to analyse you but rarely actually make me think about - let alone change - myself. Does it imply that that Oxford have a real psychologically manipulative genius designing them, or just that I over-think things? And whether it was deliberate or not in these instances, it does suggest an interesting way of guiding people's behaviour. It's well established that cunning survey design can easily manipulate respondents into given the answer you want (wonderfully demonstrated in this classic quotation from 'Yes Minister'), but I wonder if any research has been done on designing them explicitly to have more long-term effects as well as - or instead of - their ostensible purpose of information gathering?

I don't really know which is the odder thought: that Oxford City Council have somehow tricked me into being a better cyclist and happier person, or that I've done it myself by agonising over my answers to unimportant questionnaires...
Tags: psychology, surveys, writing
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