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The forbid/allow asymmetry

On the cognitive mechanisms underlying wording effects in surveys

Bregje Holleman

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.

Edited by Piet Westendorp, Carel Jansen and Rob Punselie

User interfaces and supporting documentation are both supposed to help people when using a complex device. But often, these forms of support seem to come from different worlds. User interface designers, document designers, and researchers in both interface and document design share many goals, but are also separated by many barriers. In this book, user interface designers and documents designers from Microsoft Corporation and from Apple Computer, plus researchers from several universities try to bridge the gap between interface design and document design. They discuss opportunities for closer cooperation, and for more integrated and effective help for users of modern technology. Keywords: Man Machine Interaction; User Interface Design; Online Help Design; Document Design; Information Design; Visual Communication; Technical Communication; Gerontechnology Target group: user interface designers, manual designers, designers of instructions for use, interaction researchers, information designers, document designers