Journal of Official Statistics, Vol.13, No.1, 1997. pp. 1928

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Suggestive Interviewer Behaviour in Surveys: An Experimental Study

The consequences of suggestive interviewer behaviour as a potential source of bias in obtaining valid answers in survey settings are discussed. It is hypothesized that: (1) suggestive interviewer behaviour while asking closed questions, or during probing, influences the responses and their distributions; and (2) parameter estimations of relationships with variables measured with questions influenced by suggestive behaviour are affected too. Three kinds of more or less suggestive interviewer behaviour concerning the presentation of response alternatives, following a closed question about consequences of aging, were systematically varied in a field experiment across different groups of randomly selected older (55+) respondents ( N = 235). After obtaining a response to the question, the interviewer asked for any reasons for that particular response, thereby systematically suggesting a particular aspect of aging. After these manipulations, respondents were asked to evaluate a number of aspects, among them those previously suggested to the respondent. The distributions of the responses to the closed question proved to differ between experimental groups: suggested answers were indeed mentioned more often (p<.001). Suggestive probing had an effect too: one of the suggested aspects was evaluated as having greater effect than aspects that were not suggested (p =.035). Finally, the correlation between the responses to the closed question and another variable, age, turned out to be dependent on the experimental condition, with correlation coefficients ranging from r = .03 to r = .35. The experiment shows that suggestive interviewing indeed affects the quality of the data collected.

Suggestive questions; suggestive probing; field experiment.

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