Recommended reading: The Psychology of Survey Response

October 2, 2009
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The Psychology of Survey Response by Roger Tourangeau, Lance J. Rips, and Kenneth Raskinski (Cambridge University Press, 2000) will change the way you think about the “craft” of survey design. While there are other, well-regarded books on survey question construction (such as Asking Questions by Norman Bradburn, Seymour Sudman, and Brian Wansink, Jossey-Bass, 2004) and tons of individual research papers and articles on various aspects of survey design, measurement scales, question construction and the like, this is the first book I’ve encountered that presents a practical conceptual framework for understanding the cognitive processes that produce a response to a given question. Moreover, the authors review a lot of relevant research to support their framework.

The survey questionnaire has been a major tool for generating customer knowledge at least since Charles Coolidge Parlin created the market research function at Curtis Publishing in the first half of the 20th century. No doubt by now business decisions worth billions of dollars have been based on survey data. Yet the survey questionnaire itself often introduces considerable measurement error into the process.

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The Psychology of Survey Response by Roger Tourangeau, Lance J. Rips, and Kenneth Raskinski (Cambridge University Press, 2000) will change the way you think about the “craft” of survey design. While there are other, well-regarded books on survey question construction (such as Asking Questions by Norman Bradburn, Seymour Sudman, and Brian Wansink, Jossey-Bass, 2004) and tons of individual research papers and articles on various aspects of survey design, measurement scales, question construction and the like, this is the first book I’ve encountered that presents a practical conceptual framework for understanding the cognitive processes that produce a response to a given question. Moreover, the authors review a lot of relevant research to support their framework.

The survey questionnaire has been a major tool for generating customer knowledge at least since Charles Coolidge Parlin created the market research function at Curtis Publishing in the first half of the 20th century. No doubt by now business decisions worth billions of dollars have been based on survey data. Yet the survey questionnaire itself often introduces considerable measurement error into the process.

According to the authors, the survey response process has four components: comprehension (figuring out what the question is asking); retrieval (searching memory for relevant representations); judgment (processing those representations in some fashion to arrive at an “answer”); and response (matching the internally generated answer to the available responses in the survey question). Every step in the process can introduce measurement error. I’ve used this framework in the course of think-aloud pretesting to identify potential problems in a survey. Prior to the pretest, I make a list of the potential issues for each component of the process for each question and then monitor for those issues.

This book may not be especially easy going for readers who are not at least somewhat familiar with cognitive psychology and psychological research methods. Still, I think anyone who writes survey questions on a regular basis should take a crack at it. I promise you’ll look at the process differently after reading this book, and you’ll write better surveys as a result.

Copyright 2009 by David G. Bakken.  All rights reserved.