Dateline: October, 2007, Issue 3

How does question wording affect witnesses' answers of frequency?

Question wording influences the answer witnesses provide. A response about the number of times a certain action or event occurred is not independent of the wording of the question used to elicit the answer.

Loftus (1975) reports a study finding that people's estimated frequency of use of headache products are dependent on (1) possible answers that are included as part of the question, and (2) the adverb used in the question.

First, witnesses' answers of frequency are related to the possibilities suggested within the question. In Loftus' research, people were asked one of two questions:

People asked the 1?2?3? question responded, on average, they had tried other headache products approximately 3 times, whereas people asked the 1?5?10? question responded, on average, they had done so approximately 5 times. Higher suggested frequencies in a question generate higher frequencies in answers.

Second, witnesses' answers of frequency are also related to the adverbs used in a question. In Loftus' research, people were also asked one of two other questions:

People asked the frequently question reported an average of 2.2 headaches per week, whereas people asked the occasionally question reported only .7 headaches per week. Adverbs in a question implying higher frequencies generated higher frequency estimates in answers.

Witnesses' answers to questions asking for frequency estimates depend on more than the actual occurrence of an event or action; they also depend on the wording of the questions. Questions that suggest lower frequencies and use adverbs implying lower frequencies generate lower estimates as responses when compared to questions that suggest, or use adverbs implying, higher frequencies.

Source Loftus, E. F. (1975). Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive Psychology, 7, pp. 560-572.