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An individual’s opinion on ethical issues can be altered by the manner in which information is presented to him. In addition to the subject matter contained in the information, the implicit tone and wordings used in the text can have a significant impact on the opinion of the reader. In a similar manner, the phrasing of the questions asked can also alter a person’s response to a certain ethical issue. Schwarz (1999) observed that the validity of the survey data depends partly on how questions are worded. This phenomenon was illustrated in a study conducted by the Gallup Organization (1998) in which the responses of the people regarding the popularity of President Clinton after his affair with a White House intern were obtained. When the survey was conducted in order to question people about their opinion on President Clinton exclusively, 40% voted in his favor (a 20% drop from previous polls). However, the very next day, when the same query was made regarding several prominent personalities including President Clinton, 55% of the respondents were in support of President Clinton. The manner in which the question was presented to the people caused a variation in the results of the two surveys.
The objective of this experiment is to explore how the framing of survey questions influences responses. The survey will study whether the opinions of people regarding the practice of abortion vary with respect to the way the question inquiring their view on that issue is phrased. In this study, two groups of people will be asked a question to learn of their stance on abortion. One group will respond to a question that poses abortion as a meaningful solution to compelling circumstances. The other group will be given a question that portrays the practice of abortion as a social evil.
It is hypothesized that the framing of the question influences people’s responses. Therefore, more people will favor abortion when it is depicted as a solution to misery, whereas more people will be against abortion when it is portrayed as a selfish reaction of parents to the conception of a child.
The forty participants (20 males and 20 females) were randomly selected among the freshmen students of Amherst College. These freshmen students are residents of South and North Dormitories.
Two survey forms were designed to investigate the response of the participants on the issue of abortion. The question in each survey differed in the way it was phrased. The question in one survey (pro-choice) depicts abortion as a required solution to alleviate a woman from misery, whereas the other survey (pro-life) describes abortion as a merciless murder of human life. The questions on the two surveys were framed as follows:
Survey A: Do you think it is proper for a woman, who has become pregnant through a horrible rape, to have an abortion?
Survey B: Do you think it is right to kill through abortion helpless babies simply due to the selfish motives of parents?
Each survey was randomly given to 10 males and 10 females to ensure that results are not greatly affected due to a disproportionate gender ratio. The participants were instructed to read the questionnaire carefully and respond on a one-to-five scale with 1 being “disagree strongly” and 5 being “agree strongly.”
One independent variable used in this experiment was the wording of the question. The dependent variable is the response of the participants to the questions posed. If the hypothesis was correct that the framing of the question will influence participants’ responses, then there will be a significantly higher percentage of participants inclined towards favoring abortion on the pro-choice survey, whereas a correspondingly low percentage of those on the pro-life survey.
The following averages of the responses were obtained for the two surveys:
Survey A (on scale of 5): Pro- Choice
Overall Average 4.75
Survey B (on scale of 5): Pro-Life
Overall Average 2.25
It can be observed from the data and the graphical presentation that the participants in the two surveys responded very differently to the questionnaire. The participants that were given the pro-choice survey showed highly strong inclinations in favor of abortion, and the average was computed as 4.75. On the other hand, the results from the pro-life survey suggest that participants were generally indifferent or against abortion. The average on the response scale was calculated as 2.25. These results are in strong agreement with our hypothesis that the response of an individual is a function of the way the question is phrased for him/her.
The study demonstrates that people tend to be influenced by the way the questions asked to them are framed. That opinion, as a result of a biased question, might not reflect the true judgment of the individual, but could be simply the result of the way he/she was asked his/her opinion. As predicted by the first hypothesis, the tone and wording of simple information can alter an individual’s conclusion regarding ethical issues. The phrasing of the question, in this case, is a representation of a scenario that the person is exposed to. The association of that person’s thought process to that particular hypothetical scenario set up by the question leads to misrepresentation of his/her opinion. In this manner, surveys are very likely to give inaccurate indications about respondent’s opinions. The results of a survey can thus be distorted if the questions are phrased in a particular way. Consequently, answers are not given honestly, and respondents would not constitute a representative sample. Psychologists use various types of surveys to ask people about their behavior, beliefs, opinions, or intentions in order to complement their research on all topics. These psychologists need to take corrective measures to any sort of survey biases they observe while proceeding with their study. One way to reduce the survey error is by asking differently phrased questions about the same issue to a large pool of participants. This method would give indications of any strong trends and inclinations exhibited by the participants, or any gender variation within the participant pool.
Although this study had reliable conclusions, there were some aspects of the experiment that could be improved. The first one is the size of the participants’ pool. A larger number of subjects would greatly enhance the credibility of the conclusions drawn by insuring reliability and reproducibility in the results. Moreover, all the participants were Amherst College students who mostly represent the opinions of the educated elite of the nation. A more diverse group of participants of a broader cross-section of adult population and interests would have improved the accuracy and validity of the results. These people would reflect in their opinion what they have been exposed to in their communities and cultures, which could lead to different results. One would have to carry out these tasks by surveying the much more diverse student body of the Five College Area and career professionals and general public in the Pioneer valley.
In addition, the survey question explored the participant’s opinion on abortion, which is a much more sensitive issue for females compared to males. The responses from women could be biased towards abortion because women empathize more with their own gender and understand better the reasons why a woman would want to have her child aborted. Therefore, the variation in the results of the two surveys might not be fully appreciated because of this implicit bias of women towards the issue of abortion. To rectify this error, the survey could have inquired opinion on ethical issues that are neutral to both genders.
Further work on this topic could be carried out by exploring people’s responses pertaining to various issues, including those that are gender-neutral. These issues may include death penalty, euthanasia, and animal slaughter. Surveys inquiring views on these issues should contain questions that are phrased differently from each other. Studies based on these unbiased survey questions could also yield results that indicate whether men or women are more sensitive to the wording of the questions.
Lab report #1: The influence of the framing of survey questions on responses
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