Pollsters are used to having their calls screened. But when everyone is stuck at home, a stranger with some survey questions can be a lifeline.

Ayala Mitchell, who conducts polling interviews, and her colleagues are getting more responses to their calls and having longer conversations than they did before the coronavirus crisis.

Credit…Annie Tritt for The New York Times

It was a straightforward telephone survey of New Yorkers, a series of questions about the effects of the coronavirus crisis, and it was meant to take just a few minutes. But a strange thing kept happening. Many of the people who answered the phone wanted to keep talking — about their loneliness, about their sadness, about their fears for the future — even after the questions had stopped.

“People are dealing with anxiety, and they haven’t seen their family and friends,” said Ayala Mitchell, one of the interviewers for the survey conducted earlier this month by the Siena College Research Institute. “They just want to talk to someone.”

The one that really got to her, Ms. Mitchell said, was her conversation with an older woman who said the only good thing about her day had been venturing outside and seeing a single flower blooming. It was hard not to cry, Ms. Mitchell said. “You have to be very careful because you don’t want to come across as biased, but I said, ‘I understand how you’re feeling. We all have to get through this.’”

As the coronavirus has swept across the country, it has stolen millions of jobs and thrust people everywhere into acute financial insecurity. It has also forced the majority of the population to shelter in place. But in an industry where rejection is a normal part of a day’s work pollsters are finding that many people are suddenly willing, even grateful, to talk. In some cases they are treating the anonymous questioners as lifelines to the world, almost as therapists, in the absence of other people to talk to.

Executives at a number of firms across the country said in interviews that not only are more people willing to answer the phone to unknown callers these days, but that those who do agree to be interviewed are more likely to stay through the end of the conversation. This has led to an increase in productivity rates of roughly 25 percent, they said — and to an unusual situation where some respondents actually thank the pollsters for getting in touch.

It also means that, in a moment of crisis and in the midst of a presidential election, a wider variety of people are willing to tell pollsters what they think, so it’s more likely that a poll’s respondents will come closer to reflecting the makeup of the general population.

Even in online surveys, pollsters have also seen an increase in participation over the past few weeks. At the Pew Research Center, which does most of its polling through the online American Trends Panel, many respondents filled in a voluntary-comments box in a recent survey with expressions of gratitude.

“There were a lot of people volunteering that they appreciated being asked about this content, that they felt it was timely, they felt it was relevant, and really appreciated the opportunity to talk about this,” Courtney Kennedy, Pew’s director of survey research, said of the firm’s recent virus-related poll. “We don’t usually get that kind of feedback.”

Don Levy, director of polling at Siena, said that respondents’ desire for human connections was understandable, but that it also complicated pollsters’ job. For survey results to be considered reliable, pollsters must use a series of specific questions, with interviewers adhering closely to a script so as not to influence the responses. Even expressing agreement can potentially bias a respondent’s later answers, experts agree.

Siena’s recent poll of New Yorkers about the coronavirus was designed to take about 10 minutes but “averaged about 14 minutes — which is a big difference,” Mr. Levy said. (Siena often conducts polls in partnership with The New York Times and other organizations. It also fields its own surveys, like this one.)

LaShawn Nelson, who conducted interviews for that poll from her home in Houston, said it was challenging to stick to the script when confronted with so much anxiety and worry at the other end of the line. One woman, she said, told her she’d lost her job and then began to weep, right there on the phone. “When they say what they’re going through and we just move on to the next question, it seems like we’re not even human, like we don’t care,” Ms. Nelson said. “But we do care.”

“I tell them, ‘Just be patient — I know everything seems like it’s not going to end, but hold on, things will turn around and the economy will pick up again,’” she said.

Response rates have even risen among people in typically tough-to-reach demographics, such as young people and those without college degrees, who are typically less likely to use landlines. Pollsters have reported an increase in participation among cellphone users — particularly in the daytime, when in the past many respondents would most likely have been at work and unwilling to answer a call from an unknown number.

“The gaps you’re used to seeing in terms of age or education didn’t exist as much” in recent polls, said Eran Ben-Porath, executive vice president of the research firm SSRS, which conducts polls on behalf of news organizations such as CNN.

The increase in responses means that survey results are likely a more precise reflection of how people feel. When certain groups respond in lower numbers, pollsters have to add more weight to the few responses they did get from those groups. As response rates rise among harder-to-reach demographics, the data is less likely to need further adjustments.

Polling also costs less when more people pick up the phone. Most trusted national polls are based on at least 400, and sometimes thousands of interviews. In recent years the response rates to phone polls — reflecting the number of calls it took, on average, to get each completed interview — have often been dismal: around one in 20. For cellphone users, it’s often even lower.

Some firms are finding that their productivity has risen so much they can afford to conduct more polls this spring than expected.

Even telemarketers have found that people are more willing to chat. Paul Stockford, the research director at the National Association of Call Centers, said many telemarketing firms had reported in recent weeks that response rates were up, and that calls were lasting longer. He said that conversations were often taking on a “therapeutic” quality — for both callers and respondents.

The very process of polling has also been altered by the pandemic. Many firms have shut down their call centers and equipped workers to make calls from home. Those who are still operating the centers have reduced their staffing and reconfigured their offices so that interviewers sit farther apart.

Mr. Levy of Siena spent four days in the hospital last month after contracting the virus, and immediately moved his entire staff — analysts as well as interviewers — to work from home. “I haven’t been face-to-face with any of the people I work with for more than a month,” he said.

The virus has become far and away the most prominent issue on Americans’ minds‚ seeping into politics, daily life, work and the national psyche. So at Pew, Ms. Kennedy and her team decided to bring their eight different policy groups together to work collectively on virus-related polling.

“Normally it works well for those teams to cover their own thing, and there’s not a tremendous amount of overlap, but we’re recognizing that this is completely different,” Ms. Kennedy said. “This one national story of coronavirus is affecting all of these different dimensions of people’s lives at the same time, and there’s tremendous interplay between how your economic situation is affecting your mental health, and it’s affecting your kids, and your marriage.”

Lee Miringoff, who runs the Marist College poll, said he has been reminded of a different experience, 19 years ago, when Marist surveyed New Yorkers just days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At first, he had worried that respondents might be offended at receiving a call from a polling company in a time of national mourning. Instead, he said, “people were very, very happy to connect.”

“We wanted not to be annoying to anybody or upsetting,” Mr. Miringoff said. “We found exactly what people are finding out right now: that the response rates were off the charts, people had a lot to say, and they wanted to share.”

Ms. Mitchell, one of the Siena interviewers, said that some of her conversations with New Yorkers about the coronavirus had been particularly wrenching, like the one she had with a 92-year-old widow who lived alone and had no family to check on her. “It was so sad and I thought, ‘Oh God, I wish I could call her,’” Ms. Mitchell said.

“When you’re talking to these people every day and you hear their stories, you can’t help but get emotional,” said Ms. Mitchell, who herself is holed up in Houston with her two sons, both currently home from college, and who also works at a second job, as a claims adjuster for an insurance company. “At the end of the day, I’m grateful that I have a job.”

 

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  • Updated April 11, 2020

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      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

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