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The Deference Effect

When people tell you what they think you want to know, so as not to offend you, that’s called the deference effect. Aunger (1992, 2004) may have experienced this in Zaire (see box 8.7). In fact, it happens all the time, and researchers have long been aware of the problem. In 1958, Lenski and Leggett embedded two contradictory questions in a face- to-face interview, half an hour apart. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following two statements: (1) It’s hardly fair to bring children into the world, the way things look for the future; (2) Children born today have a wonderful future to look forward to. Just 5% of Whites agreed with both statements compared to 20% of African Americans. Lenski and Leggett concluded that this was the deference effect in action: Blacks were four times more likely than Whites to agree to anything, even contradictory statements, because the interviewers were almost all white and of higher perceived status than the respondents (Lenski and Leggett 1960).

In the National Black Election Study, 872 African Americans were polled before and after the 1984 presidential election. Since interviewers were assigned randomly to respondents, some people were interviewed by a white person before the election and an African American after the election. And vice versa: Some people were interviewed by an African American before the election and a white person on the second wave. When African American interviewers in the preelection polls were replaced by white interviewers in the postelection surveys, African Americans were more likely to say that Blacks don’t have the power to change things, that Blacks can’t make a difference in local or national elections, that Blacks cannot form their own political party, and that Whites are not responsible for keeping Blacks down—very powerful evidence of a race-of-interviewer effect (D. W. Davis 1997) (box 8.8).

Reese et al. (1986:563) tested the deference effect in a telephone survey of Anglo and Mexican American respondents. When asked specifically about their cultural preference, 58% of Hispanic respondents said they preferred Mexican American culture over other cultures, irrespective of whether the interviewer was Anglo or Hispanic. Just 9% of Anglo respondents said they preferred Mexican American culture when asked by Anglo interviewers, but 23% said they preferred Mexican American culture when asked by Hispanic interviewers.

Questions about gender and gender roles produce deference effects, too. When you ask people in the United States how most couples actually divide child care, men are more likely than women to say that men and women share this responsibility—if the interviewer is a man (Kane and McCaulay 1993:11). Do women have too much influence, just

BOX 8.7


Robert Aunger (1992, 2004:145-62) studied three groups of people in the Ituri forest of Zaire. The Lese and Budu are horticultural, and the Efe are foragers. Aunger wanted to know if they shared the same food avoidances. He and three assistants, two Lese men and one Budu man, interviewed a total of 65 people. Each of the respondents was interviewed twice and was asked the same 140 questions about a list of foods.

Aunger identified two types of errors in his data: forgetting and mistakes. If informants said in the first interview that they did not avoid a particular food but said in the second interview that they did avoid the food, Aunger counted the error as forgetfulness. If informants reported in interview two a different type of avoidance for a food than they'd reported in interview one, then Aunger counted this as a mistake.

Even with some missing data, Aunger had over 8,000 pairs of responses in his data (65 pairs of interviews, each with up to 140 responses), so he was able to look for the causes of discrepancies between interview one and interview two. About 67% of the forgetfulness errors and about 79% of the mistake errors were correlated with characteristics of informants (gender, ethnic group, age, and so on). However, about a quarter of the variability in what informants answered to the same question at two different times was due to characteristics of the interviewers (ethnic group, gender, native language, etc.), and about 12% of variability in forgetting was explained by interviewer experience. As the interviewers interviewed more and more informants, the informants were less likely to report ''no avoidance'' on interview one and some avoidance on interview two for a specific food. In other words, interviewers got better and better with practice at drawing out informants on their food avoidances.

Of the four interviewers, though, the two Lese and the Budu got much better, while the anthropologist made very little progress. Was this because of Aung- er's interviewing style, or because informants generally told the anthropologist different things than they told local interviewers, or because there is something special about informants in the Ituri forest? We'll know when we add variables to Aunger's study and repeat it in many cultures, including our own (Further Reading: response effects).

the right amount of influence, or too little influence in today’s society? When asked this question by a male interviewer, men are more likely to say that women have too much influence; when asked the same question by a female interviewer, men are more likely to say that women have too little influence. And similarly for women: When asked by a female interviewer, women are more likely to say that men have too much influence than when asked by a male interviewer (Kane and Macaulay 1993:14-15).

Lueptow et al. (1990) found that women gave more liberal responses to female interviewers than to male interviewers on questions about gender roles. Men’s attitudes about gender roles were, for the most part, unaffected by the gender of the interviewer—except

BOX 8.8


In 1982, Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles, ran against George Deukmejian for the office of governor of California. Bradley was ahead in the polls for the governorship of California right up to election day—and lost. Some voters had told pollsters that they were for Bradley, who is black, and then voted for Deu- kejian, who is white. The so-called Bradley effect was at work in 1989, when Douglas Wilder, an African American, ran against Marshall Coleman, who is white, for the governorship of Virginia. Preelection polls showed that Wilder was far ahead, but in the end, he won by only a slim margin. White voters were more likely to claim Wilder as their choice if the interviewer was African American than if the interviewer was white (Finkel et al. 1991). Barack Obama is widely credited with ending the Bradley Effect, but he lost the 2008 New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton by three points after being ahead in the polls by eight points—right up to election day (Kohut 2008).

that highly educated men gave the most liberal responses about gender roles to female interviewers. ‘‘It appears,’’ said Lueptow et al., ‘‘that educated respondents of both sexes are shifting their answers toward the socially desirable positions they think are held by female interviewers’’ (p. 38). Attitudes about gender roles sure are adaptable. That was in 1990. In 2008, about 26% of the American public was ‘‘angry or upset’’ at the prospect of a woman president, even though, at the time almost 90% of Americans told pollsters that they would vote for a qualified woman foir president (Streb et al. 2008:77).

Questions that aren’t race related, by the way, are not affected much by the race or the ethnicity of either the interviewer or the respondent. Still, whenever you have multiple interviewers, keep track of the race, ethnicity, and gender of the interviewer and test for response effects. Identifying sources of bias is better than not identifying them, even if you can’t eliminate them (Further Reading: the deference effect).

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