Posts Tagged ‘double barreled questions’

Avoiding Biased Survey Questions

July 19, 2010

Adequate thought must be given to designing a questionnaire. Ask the wrong questions, or ask questions the wrong way, and you can end up with useless information; make the survey difficult or cumbersome, and respondents won’t participate; put the questions in the wrong order and you can end up with biased results. The most common problem with wording survey questions is bias. Biased questions are frequently asked in surveys administered by groups or organizations that are seeking to advance their political or social action agendas, or by certain departments or units within a corporation or organization likewise seeking to improve their political standing within the organization. Consider the questions below:

“Do you think the senseless war in Iraq that President Bush insisted on starting is going to result in thousands of unnecessary deaths?”

“Do you think the unprecedented trillion-dollar federal deficit the Democrats are creating with their out-of-control spending is going to have disastrous consequences for our nation?”

“Do you favor repeal of the death tax, so that many families won’t be unfairly burdened with hefty taxes at the time of their grief?”

Could these questions be more biased? Notice the adjectives in the questions, words like “senseless,” “unnecessary,” “unprecedented,” “out-of-control,” “disastrous,” “unfairly,” “burdened,” and “hefty.” All of them make it clear that a certain answer to each question is expected.

Look also at the descriptive words in some of the questions: “trillion-dollar,” “death” (as opposed to “estate”). You can see further manipulation. Worded the way they are, these questions stir up the emotions, which surveys are not supposed to do.

Removing the Bias

Can these questions be improved? Depending on the objectives of the survey, most definitely. In the first question, we might simply change the question to a multiple choice and ask:

What is your opinion regarding President Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq?

Totally Sensible

Mostly Sensible

Somewhat Sensible

Not Sure

Somewhat Senseless

Mostly Senseless

Totally Senseless

 

Notice the difference? Here, the question is neutral. It also opens the survey taker to options that reflect the degree to which he/she feels about President Bush’s decision.

How about the second question? Perhaps we can try this:

In your opinion, how serious will the consequences of the federal budget deficit be for the nation?

Very Serious (5)

Serious (4)

Slightly Serious (3)

Not Very Serious (2)

Not at All Serious (1)

 

Here, we again neutralize the tone of the question and we let the respondent decide how severe the impact of the deficit will be. Notice also that we used an unbalanced scale, like we discussed last week. That’s because we would expect more respondents to select choices on the left hand side of the scale. This revised question focused on the seriousness of the deficit. We could also ask respondents about their perceptions of the size of deficit:

How do you feel about the size of the federal budget deficit?

Too Large (5)

Very Large (4)

Slightly Large (3)

Just Right (2)

Too Small (1)

 

Again, we use an unbalanced scale for this one. If we asked both the revised questions, we can gain great insights into the respondent’s perceptions of both the size and seriousness of the deficit. Ideally, we would ask the question about the deficit’s size before the question about its consequences.

These two revised questions should also point out another flaw with the original question: not only was it worded with bias, but it was also multipurpose or double-barreled. It was trying to fuse two thoughts about the deficit: it was too large and it was going to have serious consequences. These two revised questions will give us another advantage: we can now see how many people think the deficit is too large but do not see it as a serious threat. After all, we may agree something is excessive but we may not necessarily agree about the impact of that excess.

Now let’s look at the last question. Perhaps we can focus on the fairness of the estate tax:

What is your opinion regarding the fairness of the estate tax?

Absolutely Fair

Mostly Fair

Not Sure

Mostly Unfair

Absolutely Unfair

 

Of course, some respondents might not know what the estate tax is, so we need to describe it to them. Even in describing or defining something, we can open the door to bias, so we must choose our words carefully:

When a person dies, his or her heirs pay taxes on the amount of his/her estate that exceeds $1 million. This is known as the “estate” tax. What is your opinion regarding the fairness of such a tax?

Absolutely Fair

Mostly Fair

Not Sure

Mostly Unfair

Absolutely Unfair

 

This does a good job of describing the estate tax, but putting in the $1 million dollar figure can bias the results. If a respondent’s net worth is nowhere close to $1 million, he or she may consider the estate tax fair, just his or her heirs are unlikely to be affected by it. Perhaps the question can be worded this way:

When a person dies, a portion of his or her estate is subject to an “estate” tax. Would you say that such a tax is:

Absolutely Fair

Somewhat Fair

Not Sure

Somewhat Unfair

Absolutely Unfair

 

I think this example would be better, since it says “a portion” rather than a specific amount. While the $1 million example is more factual, it also adds in more normative considerations. By using “a portion,” we respondents won’t concentrate on the dollar amount of the estate, but on the fairness of the estate tax.

The adage “It’s not what you say but how you say it,” rings very true in questionnaire design. You must choose your words carefully in order to get the information you need to make well-informed business decisions.

*************************

If you Like Our Posts, Then “Like” Us on Facebook and Twitter!

Analysights is now doing the social media thing! If you like Forecast Friday – or any of our other posts – then we want you to “Like” us on Facebook! By “Like-ing” us on Facebook, you’ll be informed every time a new blog post has been published, or when other information comes out. Check out our Facebook page! You can also follow us on Twitter.

Advertisements

Free Online Survey Tools Can Yield Costly Useless Results if not Used Carefully

June 15, 2010

Thanks to online survey tools like Zoomerang, Surveymonkey, and SurveyPirate, the ability to conduct surveys has been greatly democratized. Small businesses, non-profits, and departments within larger firms can now conduct surveys that they would never have been able to do because of cost and lack of resources. Unfortunately, the greatest drawback of these free survey tools is the same as their greatest benefit: anyone can launch a survey. Launching an effective survey requires a clear definition of the business problem at hand; a carefully thought out discussion of the information needed to address the business problem, the audience of the survey, and how to reach it; determination of the sample size and how to select them; designing, testing, and implementing the questionnaire; and analyzing the results. Free online survey tools do not change this process.

Recently, a business owner from one of my networking groups sent me an online survey that he designed with one of these free tools. It was a questionnaire about children’s toys – which was the business he was in. He wasn’t sending me the survey to look at and give advice; he sent it to me as if I were a prospective customer. Unfortunately, I’m not married and don’t have kids; and all my nieces and nephews are past the age of toys. The survey was irrelevant to me. The toy purveyor needed to think about who his likely buyers were – and he should have good knowledge, based on his past sales, of who his typical buyers are. Then he could have purchased a list of people to whom he could send the survey. Even if that meant using a mail or phone survey, which could be costly, the owner could get more meaningful results. Imagine how many other irrelevant or uninterested recipients received the business owner’s survey. Most probably didn’t respond; but others might have responded untruthfully, giving the owner bogus results.

Also, the “toy-preneur’s” survey questions were poorly designed. A double-barreled question: “Does your child like educational or action toys?” What if a respondent’s child liked both educational and action toys? The owner should have asked two separate questions: “Does your child like educational toys?” and “Does your child like action toys?” Or he could have asked a multi-part question like, “Check the box next to each of the types of toys your child likes to play with,” followed with a list of the different types of toys.

The survey gets worse… questions like: “How much does your child’s happiness mean to you?” How many people are going to answer that question negatively? Hello? Another asking the respondent to rank-order various features of a toy for which there was no prototype pictured, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there were at least 9 items to rank? Most people can’t rank more than five items, especially not for an object they cannot visualize.

We also don’t know how the toy manufacturer selected his sample. My guess was that he sent it to everyone whose business card he collected. Hence, most of the people he was surveying were the wrong people. In addition to getting unacceptable results, another danger of these online survey tools is that people are more frequently bombarded with surveys that they stop participating in surveys altogether. Imagine if you were to receive five or more of these surveys in less than two weeks. How much time are you willing to give to answering these surveys? Then when a truly legitimate survey comes up, how likely are you to participate?

I think it’s great that most companies now have the ability to conduct surveys on the cheap. However, the savings can be greatly offset by the uselessness of the results if the survey is designed poorly or sent to the wrong sample. There is nothing wrong with reading up on how to do a survey and then executing it, as described, as long as the problem is well-defined, the relevant population is identified, and the sampling, execution, and analysis plans are in place. “Free” surveying isn’t good if it costs you money and time in rework and/or in faulty actions taken based on your findings.

Do you have trouble deciding whether you need to do a survey? Do you spend a lot of time trying to find out what you’re trying to learn from a survey? Or how many people to survey? Or the questions you need to ask? Or which people to survey? Let Analysights help. We have nearly 20 years of survey research experience and a strong background in data analysis. We can help you determine whether a survey is the best approach for your research needs, the best questions to ask to get the information you need, and help you understand what the findings mean. Feel free to call us at (847) 895-2565.