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Asking Questions

The Definitive Guide to Questionnaire Design— For Market Research, Political Polls, and Social and Health Questionnaires, Revised Edition

Norman M. Bradburn

Seymour Sudman

Brian Wansink

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This book is dedicated to the memory of our colleague
and coauthor Seymour Sudman who died tragically
while we were in the midst of writing this book.
His spirit and wisdom have continued to inspire
us as we brought this manuscript to press.
He lives on in this book.


This book is a revised and updated edition of Asking Questions: A Practical Guide to Questionnaire Design, first published in 1982. It focuses on the type of question asking that social science researchers and market researchers use in structured questionnaires or interviews. Many of the principles of effective formalized questioning we focus on in this book are useful in other contexts. They are useful in informal or semistructured interviews, in administering printed questionnaires in testing rooms, and in experimental studies involving participant evaluations or responses.

We intend this book to be a useful “handbook” for sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, evaluation researchers, social workers, sensory scientists, marketing and advertising researchers, and for many others who have occasion to obtain systematic information from clients, customers, or employees.

In the past two decades, two major changes in the practice of survey research prompted us to produce a revised edition. First, there has been a revolution in research on question asking brought about by the application of cognitive psychology to the study of questionnaire design. We now have a conceptual framework for understanding the question-answering process and the causes of the various response effects that have been observed since the early days of social scientific surveys. This work has helped move questionnaire construction from an art to a science.

Second, there has been a technological revolution in the way computers can be used to support the survey process. Computer-assisted survey information collection (CASIC) refers to a variety of specialized programs used to support survey data collection—for example, CAPI (computer-assisted personal interviewing) or CATI (computer-assisted telephone interviewing), to name the most common forms of CASIC. The greater use of computer technology at every stage of data collection in surveys has made many of the suggestions in our earlier edition obsolete and necessitated a thorough reworking of discussion that was predicated on traditional paper-and-pencil questionnaires. We are also beginning an era of Web-based surveys. Although there is still much to learn about this new method of conducting surveys, we have tried to incorporate what we know at this time into our discussions where relevant.

We have tried to make the book self-contained by including major references. Some readers, however, may wish to refer to our earlier books, Response Effects in Surveys: A Review and Synthesis (Sudman and Bradburn, 1974); Improving Interview Method and Questionnaire Design: Response Effects to Threatening Questions in Survey Research (Bradburn, Sudman, and Associates, 1979); Thinking About Answers (Sudman, Bradburn, and Schwarz, 1996); and Consumer Panels, (Sudman and Wansink, 2002), for more detailed discussion of the empirical data that support our recommendations.

This book is specifically concerned with questionnaire construction—not with all aspects of survey design and administration. Although we stress the careful formulation of the research problems before a questionnaire is designed, we do not tell you how to select and formulate important research problems. To do so requires a solid knowledge of your field—knowledge obtained through study and review of earlier research, as well as hard thinking and creativity. Once the research problem is formulated, however, this book can help you ask the right questions.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part I we discuss the social context of question asking. We present our central thesis, namely that questions must be precisely worded if responses to a survey are to be accurate; we outline a conceptual framework for understanding the survey interview and present examples to illustrate some of the subtleties of language and contexts that can cause problems. We also discuss some of the ethical principles important to survey researchers—the right to privacy, informed consent, and confidentiality of data.

Part II is devoted to tactics for asking questions. In Chapters Two through Nine we consider the major issues in formulating questions on different topics, such as the differences between requirements for questions about behavior and for questions about attitudes. We also consider how to ask questions dealing with knowledge and special issues in designing questions that evaluate performance, measure subjective characteristics, and measure demographic characteristics.

In Part III we turn from the discussion of the formulation of questions about specific kinds of topics to issues involved in crafting the entire questionnaire. We discuss how to organize a questionnaire and the special requirements of different modes of data collection, such as personal interviewing, telephone interviewing, self-administration, and electronic surveying. We end with a set of frequently asked questions and our answers.

Throughout the book we use terms that are well understood by survey research specialists but that may be new to some of our readers. We have therefore provided a glossary of commonly used survey research terms. Many of the terms found in the Glossary are also discussed more fully in the text. In addition, we have included a list of academic and not-for-profit survey research organizations in Appendix A.

The chapters in Part II are introduced with a checklist of items to consider. The checklists are intended as initial guides to the major points made and as subsequent references for points to keep in mind during the actual preparation of a questionnaire.

Readers new to designing surveys should read sequentially from beginning to end. Experienced researchers and those with specific questionnaire issues will turn to appropriate chapters as needed. All readers should find our detailed index of use.

In this book we have distilled a vast amount of methodological research on question asking to give practical advice informed by many years of experience in a wide variety of survey research areas. But much is still not known. We caution readers seeking advice on how to write the perfect questionnaire that perfection cannot be guaranteed. For readers who wish to do additional research in questionnaire design, much interesting work remains to be done.


While we were in the process of writing this new edition, Seymour Sudman died tragically. His vast knowledge of the research literature, deep experience, and wise judgment continue to enrich this volume. We miss him greatly.

This edition builds on its predecessor and all those who contributed to it. We are indebted to many colleagues at the Survey Research Laboratory (SRL), University of Illinois, and at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), University of Chicago. These colleagues include Herbert Jackson, who compiled the material for Chapter Twelve, and Matthew Cheney, Sarah Jo Brenner, and Martin Kator, who helped in manuscript preparation by compiling and summarizing recently published findings in the area of survey design.

At Jossey-Bass, Seth Schwartz and Justin Frahm: We are grateful for their patience with the sometimes distracted authors and for their inventive solutions to the inevitable challenges that arose in turning a manuscript into an aesthetically pleasing book. Readers, as do we, owe them all a deep debt of gratitude.

Norman Bradburn
Arlington, Virginia

Brian Wansink
Urbana, Illinois

August 2003

The Authors

Norman M. Bradburn (Ph.D. Harvard University, 1960) is the Margaret and Tiffany Blake Distinguished Service Professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology and the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. He has written widely, often with Seymour Sudman, on topics in survey methodology. He was a pioneer in the application of cognitive psychology to the design of survey questionnaires. For a number of years, he was the director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. He is currently the assistant director for social, behavioral, and economic sciences at the National Science Foundation.

Seymour Sudman (Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1962) was the Walter H. Stellner Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) from 1968 until his death in 2000. Through a lifetime of active research, he contributed immeasurably to the area of survey design, sampling, and methodology. He was actively involved in providing guidance to the U.S. Census Bureau, and he served as deputy director and research professor of the Survey Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

Brian Wansink (Ph.D. Stanford University, 1990) is the Julian Simon Research Scholar and professor of marketing, of nutritional science, of advertising, and of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and is an adjunct research professor at Cornell University and at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He directs the Food and Brand Lab, which focuses on psychology related to food choice and consumption ( Prior to moving to Illinois, he was a marketing professor at Dartmouth College and at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He coauthored Consumer Panels with Seymour Sudman.

Part One
Strategies for Asking Questions