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Why People Are Inaccurate Reporters of Their Own Behavior

People are inaccurate reporters of their own behavior for many reasons. Here are four:

  • 1. Once people agree to be interviewed, they have a personal stake in the process and usually try to answer all your questions—whether they understand what you’re after or not.
  • 2. Human memory is fragile, although it’s clearly easier to remember some things than others.

Cannell et al. (1961) found that the ability to remember a stay in the hospital is related to the length of the stay, the severity of the illness that lands you there, and whether or not surgery is involved. It’s also strongly related to the length of time since discharge. Cannell and Fowler (1965) found that people report accurately 90% of all overnight hospital stays that happened 6 months or less before being interviewed.

It’s easy for people to remember a rare event, like surgery, that occurred recently. But, as Sudman and Schwarz (1989) point out, if you ask people to think about some common behavior going back months at a time, they probably use estimation rules. When Sudman and Schwartz asked people ‘‘How many [sticks] [cans] of deodorant did you buy in the last 6 months?’’ they started thinking: ‘‘Well, I usually buy deodorant about twice a month in the summer, and about once a month the rest of the year. It’s now October, so I suppose I must have bought 10 deodorants over the last 6 months.’’ And then they say, ‘‘10,’’ and that’s what you write down.

3. Interviews are social encounters. People manipulate those encounters to whatever they think is their advantage.

Adolescent boys tend to exaggerate, and adolescent girls tend to minimize, reports of their own sexual experience (see Catania et al. 1996).

4. People can’t count a lot of behaviors, so they use rules of inference.

In some situations, they invoke D’Andrade’s ‘‘what goes with what’’ rule (1974) and report what they suppose must have happened, rather than what they actually saw. Free?man et al. (1987) asked people in their department to report on who attended a particular colloquium. People who were usually at the department colloquium were mentioned as having attended the particular colloquium—even by those who hadn’t attended (and see Shweder and D’Andrade 1980).

 
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