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Do people answer polls honestly? It depends on who's asking

Do you believe in God? Do you floss your teeth? Are you gay?

Your answers to these and other questions, some pollsters believe, might depend on whether you're asked by a person or by a computer.

"People are sometimes reluctant to tell the truth to a human being. They're more comfortable telling the truth to a computer," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll for Harris Interactive, one of the nation's largest polling organizations.

Researchers have long wrestled with a problem called "social desirability bias." When asked a sensitive question, some people will give the answer they think is most respectable.

When Harris began polling online several years ago, Taylor said, researchers immediately noticed an increase in the number of people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

For years, Harris polls that included questions on sexual orientation found that about 2 percent of Americans identified themselves as nonheterosexual. But in online polls, about 6 percent did.

Harris began looking into the differences between online and phone surveys. The company rounded up two survey groups and asked them the same questions. One group answered online, and the other did the survey by phone.

There were sharp differences in the way people responded. When asked by a phone interviewer if they went to church weekly, 56 percent said yes. Only 25 percent of the online group said they did.

In the telephone survey, 44 percent admitted driving over the speed limit. But 58 percent of the online group told the computer that they were speeders.

Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor who studies polling, said some research does indicate that carefully designed computer surveys yield more honest answers than phone interviews.

But he questioned Harris' methods, suggesting that the company's surveys don't represent a true cross section of the U.S. population.

Taylor, of the Harris Poll, said his company uses well-established methods of weighting its data to ensure scientific validity. And the results, he said, are clear.

"For anything sensitive - giving to charity, washing your hands after you go to the bathroom, saying your prayers - the more accurate data almost certainly comes from the online survey," Taylor said.

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