The forbid/allow asymmetry

On the cognitive mechanisms underlying wording effects in surveys


Questionnaires are widely used in the social sciences and very often survey data form the basis for governmental and commercial planning or evaluation. Yet the quality of survey data is not attested to, since a large variety of factors in the language-use situation prove to influence the answers unintentionally. The forbid/allow asymmetry is a well-known example of this: when respondents are asked whether something should be forbidden, about 50% may answer ‘yes, forbid’ – whereas an equivalent question phrased with the verb ‘to allow’ could well cause up to 75% of the respondents to answer ‘no, it should not be allowed’. Which question wording is preferable to measure respondents’ true attitudes? Only when we know why the answers differ, can we decide on that.
This book is the first to apply a systematic cognitive approach to describe the causes of the forbid/allow asymmetry. The question-answering process is unravelled by a variety of experiments and meta-analytic techniques. Analyses reveal that the difference in question wording does not prompt respondents to retrieve different attitudes. Instead, the asymmetry reflects that the question wording causes the response options to be used differently. Because of the qualifying dimensions in the question text, the meanings of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ change, as well as the cognitive distance between them.
This study sheds a different light on processes of question-answering and text interpretation. Furthermore, practical advice on questionnaire design and on the interpretation of survey data is given on the basis of these new insights.

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Review Quotes

”The argument is both intricate and abstract. But those who persevere will have been thoroughly awakened to important issues about this question wording effect, about response effects more generally, and about the possibility of imaginative designs to increase our understanding in this area. They will also be introduced to a talented methodologist who is likely to make important contributions in the future.” in: Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 1, Spring 2001
“Holleman applies a systematic cognitive approach … The book delves into the circumstances under which the asymmetry occurs; it also examines the extent and nature of how responses are distorted by the choice of the verb ‘forbid’ or ‘allow.’” in: International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2001

Table of contents

Chapter 1 A cognitive perspective on the forbid/allow asymmetry. Chapter 2 The state of the art in forbid/allow research. Chapter 3 Generalizing the asymmetry beyond question level. Chapter 4 Attitude retrieval versus mapping an answer. Chapter 5 The communicative setting as an influencing factor. Chapter 6 Communicative restrictions and the answering scales. Chapter 7 The relative meanings of yes and no. Chapter 8 On cognitive mechanisms underlying wording effects. References. Concise subject index. Author index.

Index Card