Journal of Official Statistics, Vol.7, No.2, 1991. pp. 153166

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Acquiescence: Tests of the Cognitive Limitations and Question Ambiguity Hypotheses

Explanations for acquiescence to agree-disagree questions tend to locate the problem either in characteristics of the respondent or in characteristics of the question. For example, acquiescence has been attributed to respondents with limited cognitive sophistication and to ambiguous or unfamiliar question content. This paper elaborates the cognitive limitations theory in an attempt to clarify the cognitive mechanisms which may underlie acquiescence. The new cognitive model as well as the question ambiguity hypothesis are then tested with two attitude questions from a telephone survey of a midwestern metropolitan area. Significant acquiescence was found for both items, replicating the findings from previous studies. There was no support, however, for either the cognitive theory or the ambiguity hypothesis. Although it is concluded that it would be premature to seriously question the cognitive explanation until alternative methods are attempted, subjectively experienced ambiguity does not appear to be a valid explanation of acquiescence.

Agree-disagree questions; telephone survey.

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