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Questions - Heart of All Polls - continued


Assessing the findings of any poll requires paying special attention to the questions asked. Respondents answer the question as it is asked. A change in question wording can produce a different response. For example, in July, 2006 ABC News/Washington Post asked: "Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?" Sixty-five percent favored the death penalty. Then, the same poll asked: "Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole?" When presented with an alternative, the proportion of respondents favoring the death penalty dropped from 65% to 50%.

Red Flags

Concentrating on the subject being examined may cause question writers to overlook some fundamental shortcomings in their survey questions. Clearly, all questions should try to avoid:

  • Vague or ambiguous wording
  • Poor grammatical construction
  • Contexts that create confusion about the meaning of the words
  • Being leading
  • Being too abstract
  • Jargon
  • False premises
  • Double negatives
  • Reliance on future intentions
  • Difficulty beyond the intended audience
  • Emotional language
  • Overlapping response categories
  • Excessive length
  • Requiring too much of respondents' recall ability
    • Episodic memory or recounting - events or life experiences
    • Semantic memory - general factual memory
    • Telescoping - recalling events earlier or later than they actually occurred
    • Over or underreporting
    • Abstract recounting - perceived causes or reasons for past events
  • Asking respondents to admit to socially unacceptable views or behavior
  • Asking opinions about subjects/people the respondents do not know

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