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The History of Surveys

Updated on January 2, 2011

"Please Check All That Apply"

No matter who you are, or where you live, it's very likely that you've taken at least one survey in your life. There are all kinds of surveys - and they're everywhere - because there's someone out there who wants to know what you think, what you buy, or how you live. Your information and opinions are valuable to someone, and like it or not, they're going to ask you for it!

This is a look at different types surveys in history, and modern times.

Types of Surveys

Surveys are known by many different names. Each one has a unique meaning that can vary depending on how and where it is used. Here are the basic definitions:

Survey - In general, a survey is a statistical study of a sample population by asking questions. The accuracy of a survey's results depend upon the range of options available for answering, as well as the honesty of the people being surveyed.

Census - This is a systematic count, usually of population and other statistics such as age, gender and marital status. A census count is done at set intervals, usually over a period of years.

Poll - The questioning of a group of citizens to tally opinions or gather other information. Also called 'opinion polls', the purpose of these types of surveys is usually to assess preferences of audiences, consumers or voters.

Questionnaire - This term generally refers to written surveys, which are usually collected and stored for future reference. Some types of questionnaires include medical forms and job applications. Feedback cards, like those found in some chain restaurants are a casual type of questionnaire.

"Question #1"

Have you ever particpated in a survey?

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Ancient Surveys

The Babylonians were the first society known to have taken a population census, conducted around 3800 BC. Like most civilizations that would follow, the counts took note of citizens as well as livestock and other goods.

Funerary Model of an Egyptian Census

The word census comes from the Latin 'censere' or 'estimate'. The Ancient Roman census was the most accurate of all the ancient civilizations. Conducted for tax purposes, it is one of the factors in the long lived prosperity of the empire. By taking an accurate census, more citizens and lands could be taxed, providing wealth for expansion and trade. The Roman census was carried out every five years.

A History of Surveys in the US

The American Census: A Social History
The American Census: A Social History

This look back at interesting and controversial moments in US history details how the census counts, and related current events, can have a major impact on the government and how it behaves.

From the jacket: “There always have been pressures on the bureau to make its data conform to the desires of various interest groups, and these conflicts fill Anderson’s social history with tension and liveliness.” Howard S. Shapiro, Philidelphia Inquirer


"Question #2"

Do you like participating in surveys?

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Modern Surveys

Apart from government census, which is still carried out in most countries, there are many different types of surveys in which people can participate. Many are intended to improve the quality of products and services available to a group of customers, or they can just be for fun.

Some surveys can be completed in exchange for payment, or entry intro a prize draw. Because the information that participants provide can help with the creation of new products or services, many companies offer incentives so that people will share their views.

"Question #3"

Would you ever consider using a survey to collect information?

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Mail Questionnaires

Nearly everyone has found a survey in their mailbox, asking for the primary shopper in the household to answer questions about the products and services that they use. Many of these surveys promise the chance to win free merchandise or even cash.

To collect the desired information, companies print a list of questions and answers, which the recipient can fill out. A postage-paid envelope is usually provided so that the survey can be returned to the company for processing.

Generally, mail questionnaires are thought of as junk mail. The information provided is often used to send even more offers, coupons and unwanted mail.

These types of surveys are also frowned upon by people who are more conscious of environmental issues. The amount of waste generated by printing and sending questionnaires - which are more often than not tossed out - is not worth the potential value of the information being collected.

"Question #4"

"Junk mail surveys are bad for the environment". Do you:

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Telephone Surveys

Many comedians and cartoonists have made us laugh with their take on the annoying telephone survey. Telemarketers usually call at dinner time - when you are most likely to be home - and ask questions about everything from your shopping habits to how much you like your bank.

It is easy to recognize when you have been targeted by a telemarketer. Once you answer the telephone, they begin a speech to inform you of their intentions - and what's in it for you - without allowing you the chance to interrupt and decline politely. Many people simply hang up.

New technology such as call display allows us to filter out some of the annoying telephone calls, and you do have the right to ask that your personal information be removed from their list. Automatic dialing, which is used to call residences en masse, is now illegal in many areas.

Seinfeld VS. The Telemarketer

This classic moment from the television sitcom Seinfeld showed us all how to stick it to telemarketers in a funny and apropos way. Though the caller is trying to sell long distance service, this approach can also be applied to callers who just want you to answer multiple choice questions.

"Question #5"

Do you empathize with telemarketers?

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These are not as common as other types of polls, but many stores and other product companies do send out surveyors to shopping centers to ask questions of the public. Many people do their best to avoid eye-contact with these clipboard wielding employees.

Students sometimes take surveys of passersby as well, usually for social studies projects or journalism. Because stopping to answer questions is not an ideal use of one's time in our rushed society, these surveyors usually get as little sympathy as their sales driven counterparts.

Also falling loosely into this category are members of the media, such as television and newspaper reporters, who ask questions of people in busy areas such as shopping malls. The intention is to enhance coverage of current events by showing popular opinions of residents.

The Survey Ladies

Do you like beans?

Do you like George Wendt?

Would you like to watch a movie about George Wendt eating beans?

This episode of the Warner Bros. cartoon Animaniacs features an incredibly annoying pair of shopping mall surveyors who really want your opinion on beans.

"Question #6"

What is the most inconvenient place to be asked a survey?

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A new trend in surveys that many stores are adopting allows customers to take surveys online at their leisure. The website information is often provided on the sales receipts of purchases made while the survey is being conducted.

Shoppers can go online and answer questions after they have done their shopping. As an incentive, companies usually offer prizes and giveaways to participants, such as merchandise, store credit, or loyalty program points.

The topics of these surveys can range from customer satisfaction, to products and services. Companies can use the information to determine whether or not it would be profitable to change their merchandise, store policies, or other business practices.

Fun Surveys?

The Poll Game - A Game of Opinions
The Poll Game - A Game of Opinions

Prices starting at: $19.93

According to Mensa, The PollGame is a truly entertaining way to experience polls.

In this Q&A game, players ask yes-or-no questions and vote on how many of their opponents will say "Yes". There are a variety of topics on the game cards, but players can also make up their own questions, making it one of the only board games that will be topical indefinitely.

In 2001, The PollGame was Awarded the Mensa Select Seal as top board game.


"Question #7"

Would you volunteer to do a survery for extra AirMiles or Club Z points?

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Nearly everywhere you go on the internet, there is an ad for a website offering cash for filling out surveys. Generally considered scams and spam, these sites rarely provide what they promise.

Many paid survey companies require that you pay a fee for membership, after which you can begin 'working' at completing surveys for money. There are some paid survey sites with free membership, though the amount of money one can make depends on how many of their surveys apply to one's demographic.

Though they swear you will earn tons of cash just by answering questions, even reputable paid survey sites are unlikely to provide you with more than a little pocket cash.

How Survey Sites Can Scam You

This short video from the youwantcash channel shows - with the aid of screenshots - how one online survey website uses fine print, loopholes and shifty policies to scam members out of their hard-earned survey money.

"Question #8"

How much money have you made doing online surveys?

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Your Opinion is Important to Us

Surveys are everywhere. The television game show Family Feud could not exist without the survey. Arby’s wouldn’t know how well their staff are really treating you, if it wasn’t for the anonymous customer survey.

No matter what you do, or where you go, surveys are going to get you! They’re just like death and taxes. (Both of which are made into statistics using some form of survey.) So when you're being probed with questions, you just have to grin and bear it. It's not all that bad!

"Question #9"

Which type of survey is the most unbearable?

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"Please Provide Additional Comments in the Space Provided" - Membership is not required to comment

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I don't think surveys are useless, but many of them ask you to do things that you don't want. I refer to online surveys that often appear when you download something. Usually, the online surveys ask you to give an e-mail address for they to be able to contact you about the result. But the surveys that I really hate are the ones that ask you to download something on the mobile phone, asking for the PHONE NUMBER to send you your result at an IQ or LANGUAGE test. When I see these, I storm into the close button and, if I followed a link from a video that brought me to this shit, I leave a very upsetting comment. I think these have been made by the site managers to have lower than 0 visitors. This was my opinion.

    • dahlia369 profile image


      8 years ago

      Fun and informative poll lens!! :)

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      8 years ago

      You are most welcome!

    • PopStarPeaches profile image


      8 years ago

      Nice lens! It got me to 300 polls taken, thank you!

    • redflea13 lm profile image

      redflea13 lm 

      9 years ago

      Good work on this lens. Good survey on surveys. I added this lens to my list of lenses with polls lens.

    • Mortira profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      [in reply to kab] There would certainly be fewer carols!

    • kerbev profile image

      Kerri Bee 

      10 years ago from Upstate, NY

      How much different would Christmas be, if there was no census?


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