Key messages on response styles

Response styles reflect “default” patterns of question-answering that respondents are particularly likely to rely on because they are unmotivated, fatigued, confused by the question, or unable to answer due to lack of knowledge or insight, or because of failures in memory. This has obvious implications for question construction, in that questions need to be as simple, easy to interpret and minimally burdensome as possible. It also reiterates that the overall survey design (including its length and how it is introduced) needs to pay particular attention to respondent burden, motivation and fatigue in order to maximise data quality. This is true for all survey measures, and it is not clear from the present evidence that subjective well-being is at any greater risk of eliciting response styles than other self-reported survey items, especially socially sensitive ones.

If some groups of respondents are systematically more likely to exhibit response styles, this can threaten the accuracy of between-group comparisons in cross-sectional data. However, the literature in this area typically fails to clarify the extent to which patterns observed in the data are simply due to response style, rather than a genuine difference in how life is experienced by those respondents - partly because the presence of response styles in subjective measures remains extremely difficult to detect with any certainty. These problems (and further discussion of potential solutions) are covered in more detail in the section on cultural differences in response styles, below.

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