Patterns of error - contextual cueing

Contextual cueing refers to the influence that subtle cues within the survey context can have on how individuals answer questions (so, for example, a survey issued by a hospital could cue respondents to think about their health when answering questions). The question-answering process is not simply a cognitive, information-processing or memory task: it is also part of a social interaction and a communicative process. Several authors have likened the survey question-and-answering process to a special case of an ordinary conversation (e.g. Bradburn, Sudman and Wansink 2004; Schwartz 1999; Sudman, Bradburn and Schwartz, 1996). This implies that, in the course of establishing the meaning of questions, respondents rely on the same tacit principles that govern other more naturally-occurring forms of conversation - and thus they use, for example, contextual information contained in previous questions to guide the course of communication. Thus, survey design can have unintended consequences for how questions are interpreted.

In order to help them answer questions about subjective well-being, respondents may (consciously or otherwise) seek information about the meaning of a question, and how to answer it, from the wording of the question, the response format, or from other questions in the survey. The survey source and the manner in which questions are introduced can also influence responses, as can the phrasing of the question, which can lead respondents to believe a particular answer is expected (e.g. leading questions that suggest a particular response: “Is it true that you are happier now than you were five years ago?”). Cues also exist in the wider social context: respondents may draw on social norms and what they know about others in order to answer questions about themselves; they may consider their past experiences and future hopes; and they may be reluctant to give answers that they believe to be socially undesirable. There is thus an interaction between social communication and individual thought processes (Sudman, Bradburn and Schwartz, 1996).

To use the language of response biases described in Table 2.1, contextual cues can potentially lead to priming effects, socially desirable responding, demand characteristics and use of the consistency motif. The wider environment beyond the survey can also influence how respondents feel, and/or what is at the forefront of their minds, even when these are not explicitly discussed during the survey. If factors such as the weather, climate, day of week, and day-to-day events or mood can influence responding, these can also be considered contextual cues. For example, “mood-congruent recall” refers to a phenomenon whereby respondents can find it easier to recall information that is consistent with their current mood (so respondents in a positive mood can find it easier to recall positive information, etc.).

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