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The Third-Party-Present Effect

We sort of take it for granted that interviews are private conversations, conducted one on one, but in fact, many face-to-face interviews have at least one third party in the room, often the spouse or partner of the person being interviewed. Does this affect how people respond to questions? As with other response effects, the answer is yes, sometimes. Zipp and Toth (2002), for example, analyzed data from a household survey in Britain and found that when the spouses are interviewed together, they are much more likely to agree about many things—like who does what around the house—than when they are interviewed separately. Apparently, people listen to each other’s answers and modify their own answers accordingly, which puts on a nice, unified face about their relationship.

As you’d expect, there is a social desirablity effect when a third party is present. Casterline and Chidambaram (1984) examined data from 24 developing countries in the World Fertility Study and found that women in those countries are less likely to admit using contraception when a third party is present at the interview. Anthropologists face this situation a lot: trying to get people to talk about sensitive topics and assuring them of privacy, but unable to find the privacy for an interview.

On the other hand, Aquilino (1993) found that when their spouse is in the room, people report more marital conflict than when they are interviewed alone. They are also more likely to report that they and their spouse lived together before marriage if their spouse is in the room. Perhaps, as Mitchell (1965) suggested 45 years ago, people own up more to sensitive things like this when they know it will be obvious to their spouse that they are lying. Seems like a good thing to test (Further Reading: third-party-present effect).

 
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