Cross-cutting issues and overall messages on response formats

The variety of different response format options available lead to a wide array of possible combinations, and it is thus worth drawing conclusions together. One of the difficulties in interpreting the evidence in this field is that few studies have taken a systematic approach to how these combinations are tested - thus, investigations of scale length may fail to test whether scale polarity matters for optimal scale length. Meanwhile, examination of whether to add verbal labels to a scale might find that verbal labels increase measurement reliability - but gives no indication as to whether this applies equally to both 5-point and 11-point scales, or to both frequency and intensity judgements. Similarly, survey mode is often neglected in this field, so that it cannot be known with certainty whether conclusions drawn on the basis of pen-and-paper surveys can be transferred to face-to-face or telephone interviews, and vice versa.

There are also trade-offs that need to be considered. For example, verbal labels might increase test-retest reliability (perhaps by making differences between response categories more salient for respondents), but verbal labels may in themselves be a source of confusion and/or variability in how scales are interpreted, both between different individuals and between different languages.

Nevertheless, decisions must be taken on the basis of existing evidence, not on an (unavailable) ideal evidence base. Furthermore, it is not clear that the existing evidence base regarding the optimal question structure for measures of subjective well-being is any worse than for many other topics commonly collected in official statistics.

Considering the available evidence on response formats, several conclusions emerge:

  • • Response format does matter. Use of different response formats can introduce nontrivial variance in comparisons between measures intended to capture the same underlying concept. There is therefore a strong prima facie case for consistency in measurement. This is particularly important for key national measures that are likely to form the basis for international comparisons.
  • • There is clear evidence in favour of longer (7 to 11 point) scales over shorter (2 to 5 point) scales for single-item measures of life evaluation, and several recent high-quality studies suggest that an 11-point scale has significant advantages in terms of data quality. This lends significant weight to the use of the 11-point 0-10 scale already used in a number of prominent unofficial and official surveys. Evidence regarding optimal scale length for affective and eudaimonic measures is lacking. Another important question is which formats respondents tend to prefer.
  • • In selecting scale anchors, there is a preference for verbal labels that denote the most extreme response possible (e.g. always/never). Concerns regarding the use of agree/disagree, true/false and yes/no scale anchors in relation to response biases such as acquiescence and social desirability should be further tested.
  • • Linked to the issue of scale anchors is the question of whether response formats should be constructed as unipolar (not at all - completely) or bipolar (completely dissatisfied - completely satisfied). The evidence available indicates that a sizeable proportion of respondents may have a tendency to treat unipolar measures as if they were bipolar. In the case of affect, separate measures of positive and negative affect are often desirable, and there extra effort may be needed to convey the unipolarity of scales.
  • • For life evaluations and eudaimonia, the majority of existing measures are bipolar scales. There is limited evidence in this area, but what evidence is available suggests that whilst the choice between unipolar and bipolar appears to make little difference to positively-framed questions (such as satisfaction), bipolar formats for negatively-framed questions may prove more problematic.
  • • Providing only numerical labels for scale intervals is likely to allow simpler transferability between languages, which is an important consideration for international comparability. Verbal labels can meanwhile help to convey meaning - but generating them could be very challenging for subjective measures with up to 11 response categories (and these longer scales may be desirable for single-item measures in particular). Providing a numerical (rather than verbal) label for all scale intervals is therefore advised.

• In terms of the order and presentation of response categories, it is important to keep measures simple and to facilitate the comparability of data across survey modes. If numerical rather than verbal labels for response categories are adopted on a sliding scale, the order of presentation to respondents is not expected to be a significant issue, although consistency in running from 0-10, rather than 10-0, is recommended. Due to their additional complexity, 2-step branching questions are not recommended for subjective well-being measures at present, although if further research demonstrates that they have particular advantages - for example, in the separate measurement of positive and negative affect - this could be reconsidered.

One important practical question is the extent to which it is necessary or desirable to present respondents with the same response format across a battery of subjective well-being questions, i.e. in a module designed to assess life evaluations, affect and eudaimonia, is it necessary to use a consistent response format? If one of the analytical goals is to compare responses on two questions directly (for example, to test the effect of question wording), it is likely to be important that those questions use an identical response format (particularly in terms of the number of response options offered). For example, there may be some advantages in being able to directly compare single-item life satisfaction and eudaimonia questions, given their complementary nature.

Having an identical response format may be less important when the goal is to compare single-item life evaluations with multiple-item affect and eudaimonia measures. The impact of a change in response formats, however, also needs to be considered. On the one hand, a shift in the response format could act as a cue to respondents that a new topic is now being examined, thus reducing the risk of shared method variance (i.e. in this case, respondents reporting in a similar way on two separate measures simply as a result of those measures sharing the same response format). This could also assist in enabling respondents to make the mental switch between a set of life evaluation and eudaimonia questions that tend to be positively-framed, and a set of affect questions that contain a mix of positively- and negatively-framed items. On the other hand, changing the response format will require an explanation of the new question and response categories, which takes up survey time and effort on the part of the respondent. As with any survey item, there may be a trade-off between the “ideal” question structure and analytical, presentational and practical convenience. Further evidence from large-scale investigations can help to indicate where the most sensible balance lies.

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