What Do Americans “Really” Want

I don’t know if it goes back to learning about “Realism and Anti-Realism” from Richard Heck back in the day, but my interest is always piqued when people purport to offer ideas about how certain things “really” are. So I think it’s interesting that the famous pollster Frank Luntz’ new book is titled What Americans Really Want: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears. Interesting, primarily, because revealing what Americans “really” wants seems like absolutely the last thing that polls and focus groups are likely to reveal. If you ask people what they want, what you find out is what they say they want. And if Michelle Cottle’s review is at all accurate, the book illustrates the point perfectly well:

As much as we hear about today’s entitled youth, is it any surprise that, when asked “What do you think the youth of America need more?” far more people went with “A Swift Kick in the Ass” than “A Gentle and Understanding Hand”? Similarly, when asked, “Honestly, now, what is more important to you… “The Opportunity to Succeed” or “Protection from Failure?”, who wouldn’t choose the answer that does not make them look like a thumb-sucking, entitled whiner? […]

When addressing seniors’ myriad anxieties, use the phrase “peace of mind” instead of “security.” (The latter suggests lurking dangers from which one needs protection while the former evokes a life free from scariness.) And always remember that seniors are willing to pay considerably more for “medications” than for “drugs” or “medicine.”

This point about “medications” versus “medicine” is interesting, but of course it’s interesting precisely because these are the same thing. So if seniors say they want $40 worth of medicine but $60 worth of medications, then what is it that they really want? On an intensional reading of “want” this sort of thing can sometimes make sense. You could say “Jane wants to eat the cookie on the plate” and also “Jane doesn’t want to eat the poison on the plate” when the thing that’s on the plate is a poisonous cookie. That’s because it’s perfectly plausible that Jane doesn’t know that the cookie is poison. But is there really anyone who doesn’t know that medications and medicine are the same thing? What Luntz has uncovered is a weird lacuna in the psychological response to certain common words — an interesting fact, but the very reverse of insight into what people really want.


Or take the success/failure question. This is an interesting issue. It’s also sort of interesting to know that people like to talk about themselves as bold risk-takers. But what’s much more interesting is research into how risk-averse people actually are, and under what circumstances. There’s plenty of research dedicated to looking into these issues. But just asking people about slogans obviously doesn’t shed any light on the issue.