A survey by desjardins Financial Security indicates Canadians spend more time planning their next Caribbean escape than their financial future. Fewer than 60% of Canadians aged 40 and older, says the survey, even have retirement savings plans.

It seems that the plethora of RRSP surveys at this time of year has little impact on Canadians’ investing behaviour.

Certainly, says David Saffran, a senior vice president with research firm Ipsos-Reid Corp. in Toronto, there is always learning to be had from RRSP consumer research, however. “These polls are often cited, and they have longevity,” he says.

But whether their reach is powerful enough to sway investment choices is a matter of debate. “I don’t think survey results play a big role in the minds of investing Canadians,” says Craig Harrison, a branch manager with ScotiaMcLeod Inc. in Winnipeg.

“It doesn’t hurt for people to read the surveys — and maybe it tweaks their minds to think in another direction. But I don’t think that, just because they read a survey, they’re going to do anything dramatically different,” he says.

Many Canadians may not see themselves reflected in the numbers, says Doug Lamb, a chartered accountant and a certified financial planner who runs his own financial planning business in Toronto. “If it’s just dry, statistical data, it doesn’t really reach people. It could be the GNP. But when you identify the emotional issues —that 80% of people will be unable to retire at the age they want because they’re not planning properly — all of a sudden people say, ‘Wow, I wonder if I’m planning properly.’

“To have people change their behaviour [as a result of reading survey results], those responsible for conveying the message need to identify an emotional issue,” he concludes.

Of course, the pollsters themselves are not necessarily out to change behaviour. It’s not the emotion they are after, Saffran says; it is a sense of emerging trends. Ipsos-Reid works with RBC Financial Group to produce its annual RRSP survey. To that end, the pollsters pose a number of questions to the 150,000 households in its RRSP database. Some involve behaviour, such as what investments people have made; others are about attitudes, such as how respondents feel about expected rates of return and foreign content. A set of “tracking questions” are asked in the same manner every year so researchers can report on trends and monitor changes over time.

“We spend a lot of time thinking very carefully about the wording and the sequence of the questions to ensure that biases do not creep into the poll,” Saffran says. “It’s important that we word the questions in a neutral manner. We don’t assume an answer, but we take a stance with questions that are very neutral.”

The TD Waterhouse Canada Inc. RRSP investor poll, produced this year for the seventh consecutive time, likewise includes a standard pool of “tracking questions,” such as contribution limits, whether respondents use a financial advisor and the difference between men’s and women’s investing habits. In addition, says Patricia Lovett-Reid, senior vice president of TD Waterhouse in Toronto, the survey poses a sprinkling of specific questions that address topical concerns. This year, for example, there were questions on whether higher energy costs would have an effect on the respondent’s RRSP contributions, and whether debt levels would influence the respondent’s investing activity.

TD Waterhouse compiles the results and then slices them in a variety of ways — regionally, by age or by topic, for example. Typically, pollsters release the data and trends that have emerged from the research in late December, to capitalize on the January-February RRSP season. This year, Lovett-Reid says, the most fascinating finding is that investors in British Columbia, who lagged in their RRSP contributions last year, are leading this year. “Our polls may be part of the reason for the change,” she speculates. “The awareness we brought about may have made them think they have to do something differently.”

Claude Heimann, a partner in Toronto-based Totum Research Inc. , says RRSP surveys are often responsible for creating “a bandwagon effect” — at least, among certain segments of the population. Certainly, says Heimann, by the time a survey’s results are released, the trend is already in place. “So I don’t believe these things are actually starting any trends. But they do influence the followers, if not the leaders.

@page_break@“These surveys tell the followers what the big boys are doing,” he adds. “Surveys are traditionally a measure of what people are thinking. One of the principles we have in research is that, generally, people tend to react; they don’t tend to initiate.” IE