Question order and context effects


  • • Question order effects can be a significant problem, but one that can largely be managed when it is possible to ask subjective well-being questions before other sensitive survey items, allowing some distance between them. Where this is not possible, introductory text and other questions can also serve to buffer the impact of context.
  • • Order effects are also known to exist within sets of subjective well-being questions. Evidence suggests that question modules should include only one primary evaluative measure, flow from the general to the specific, and be consistent in the ordering of positive and negative affect measures (due to the risk that asking negative questions first may affect subsequent responses to positive questions, and vice versa).

Priorities for future work

  • • Further research should investigate the most effective introductory text and buffer items for minimising the impact of question order on subjective well-being responses.
  • • The trade-off between the advantages of randomising the presentation order of affect measures, and the potential error introduced by respondents switching between positive and negative items, needs to be further investigated.
  • • More work is also needed to examine the impact that subjective well-being questions can have on responses to subsequent self-reported questions (such as subjective health or poverty measures). Order effects seem to be reduced when the most general questions are asked first, and more specific questions second - and this would favour placing very general subjective well-being questions (e.g. life evaluations) ahead of other more specific self-report questions. Ideally, some distance between subjective well-being questions and other sensitive items would also be built into the survey design.
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