50 Years of Rare Insights Into German Society

'Love is blind" is a common expression, but a German polling firm has found that it's true.

Survey respondents, asked whether they would say their spouses or partners are "especially good-looking," answered affirmatively in a strong majority of cases.

That's just one of the unusual discoveries made by the Allensbach Institute for Opinion Research here, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997.

It's common to joke here that Bill Gates would never have been able to start Microsoft in Germany, because German labor laws prohibit people from working in a garage. But Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, grande dame of polling in Germany, and her colleagues founded the Allensbach Institute in a garage in 1947.

As soon as they could, however, they moved into the present headquarters in a restored 17th-century farmhouse, not far from the pink Rathaus, or town hall.

"The institute has become an institution," is the way German Chancellor Helmut Kohl put it at a recent "birthday party" for Allensbach held in Bonn.

A venerable legacy

To translate the comprehensiveness of its research efforts over the years into American terms, you'd have to imagine George Gallup sending out his legions of clipboard-toting interviewers during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

That's because, as the chancellor reminded his listeners in Bonn, "when the Allensbach Institute was founded, there was not yet a Federal Republic of Germany." The area in which the institute is located was still under post-World War II French occupation.

By contrast, the Gallup data go back to the 1930s - but by then the United States had been in existence for over a century and a half.

"It's certainly very unusual for one firm to cover all the democratic history of a country, and so systematically" as Allensbach has done, says American political scientist Everett Ladd, of the University of Connecticut.

He calls the Allensbach archive a "uniquely valuable resource" because it has been so meticulously organized and maintained.

"Elisabeth [Noelle-Neumann] has certainly come in for her share of criticism, not least because of her strong-willed personality," says Dr. Ladd. But he praises her institute's contribution, "both technical and substantive" - in the area of research methods, and the findings of that research.

And unlike most American opinion researchers, who generally choose between the academic and the political realms, "Elisabeth has straddled both worlds," Ladd says.

Germany's first chancellors regularly sought Allensbach's counsel from the late 1940s, and subsequent governments of both the right and the left have continued receiving its monthly opinion data briefings.

The Allensbachers are methodical, but they remain open to surprises, too.

In the Allensbach Yearbook of Opinion Research, 1993-1997, the institute reports on 35 so-called "demoscopic discoveries" it has made over the years.

Amazing discoveries

As Allensbach has found, seemingly simple questions can have far wider implications.

"Are you looking forward to the new year with hope or with fear?" is one such question that the institute has put to Germans every December since 1949. It turns out to be one of the best early indicators of economic growth.

But some findings make it apparent that what "everybody knows" isn't always so.

Germans have long been uneasy about new technologies, for instance. A particular concern has been that "computer kids" would become socially isolated.

But a recent Allensbach survey of under-30s who regularly work or play with computers found that their pursuit of "normal" social activities - going to discos, playing soccer - exceeds that of their counterparts who don't use computers.

Other discoveries can be a little scary. In 1989, Allensbach found that 11 percent of the population believed the sun revolves around the earth. By 1996, the proportion of respondents accepting the Ptolemaic blunder was up to 16 percent - and the percentage of "undecideds" had increased, too.

Allensbach yearbooks sell more copies abroad than in Germany. "For whoever wants to find out about the German mentality - about how east and west are growing together, how democratic Germany is today - we are a good source of information," says Renate Kcher, managing director of the institute.

The full-time staff at Allensbach numbers less than 100, which makes it a midsize polling organization. They are supplemented by a force of 1,900 free-lance interviewers.

"This is a place where you can think," Kcher says. Prospective clients "don't come here unless they have a complicated project. We aren't just the market research firm around the corner."

Controversial findings

The institute has occasionally been caught in controversy. After far-right Republicans did better than expected in March 1996 state elections in Baden-Wrttemberg, Allensbach was accused of having consciously played down their strength in pre-election data - a charge Kcher stoutly denies.

Polling doesn't have to be the enemy of sound politics. Kcher says more sophisticated use of polling data would help politicians win public support for more courageous decisions on complex issues.

"We're facing a far-reaching overhaul of our social system," she says. "With opinion data you can check to see what arguments will convince people that reform is necessary in the first place."

In an unexploited discovery that could impact the business community, the institute has found that, according to founder Dr. Noelle-Neumann, "A subjective sense of freedom of decision in the workplace is the greatest single determinant of happiness on the job."

Surveys show that workers who feel they have decisionmaking freedom at work tend to be absent less often than workers without such liberty.

"In times when many firms are trying to maintain their competitiveness through lowering their labor costs [by reducing absenteeism], you'd think this information deserved more public attention," writes Noelle-Neumann in the latest yearbook.

Among the heartening discoveries: People are taking longer to grow "old."

Managing director Kcher sees a trend toward a delay in the onset of "elderliness," identified as a tendency for seniors to have fewer social contacts and to be less open to new things.

"Our society is growing older. What does that mean for us? Are we getting less innovative, and so on?" she asks, citing other qualities often associated with aging.

Kcher says, "Over the last 10 years, we can see that this threshold of age has been pushed back by several years. People are getting older but their mind-set is younger."

Today's 75-year-olds, she says, are the equivalent of 65-year-olds of times past.

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