Dateline: October, 2007, Issue 4

How does the verb, adjective and article in questions affect witnesses' answers?

The wording of a question affects witnesses answers to it. Changing only the verb, an adjective, or even just the article in a question is sufficient to affect a witness' answer.

First, using differentially intense verbs (e.g., smashed, collided, bumped, hit, contacted) in a question asking about an event (e.g., a traffic accident) alters a witness' answer. Loftus and Palmer (1974) showed people a videotaped multiple-car accident. The question How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other? consistently elicited a higher estimate of speed than when smashed was replaced by collided, bumped, hit, or contacted. Estimates were, on average, 9 miles per hour (25%) higher with smashed than with contacted. Further, when asked one week later Did you see any broken glass?, people estimating higher speeds were more likely to affirm the presence of broken glass, even though no broken glass was shown in the videotape. Verbs of greater intensity generate answers reflecting that intensity.

Second, using a related but opposing adjective (e.g., tall⁄short, long⁄short) in a question asking about a quality or characteristic (e.g., height, length) alters a witness' answer. Harris (1973) asked people one of two questions:

People responded, on average, 79 inches when asked the tall question and 69 inches when asked the short question. The question How long was the movie? led people to respond, on average, 130 minutes whereas How short was the movie? led people to respond, on average, 100 minutes. Questions using adjectives implying more of a quality or characteristic generate answers that include more of that quality/characteristic.

Third, using a definite or indefinite article (the versus a) in a question also affects answers. Loftus and Zanni (1975) showed people a videotaped multiple-car accident and asked them 22 questions, 6 of which varied in the article used, and where 3 of the 6 questions asked about events that did not happen. For example, people were asked one of the two following questions:

People asked questions using the definite article the were more likely to report having seen something, whether or not it had really appeared in the videotape, than people asked questions using the indefinite article a. Questions using definite articles generate more affirmative answers.

In sum, subtle changes in the wording of questions - verbs, adjectives, articles - lead people to respond differently to questions supposedly asking for the same information.

Source Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.

Source Harris, R. J. (1973). Answering questions containing marked and unmarked adjectives and adverbs. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 97, 399-401.

Source Loftus, E. F., & Zanni, G. (1975). Eyewitness testimony: The influence of the wording of a question. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 5, 86-88.