15.9 Question Order in Surveys

The order in which questions appear in the questionnaire can also affect the reliability of the results. Questions should be grouped together by topic and within topic to avoid confusion. The first few questions in a questionnaire are crucial in preventing termination of the interview and in relaxing the respondent. Questions asking personal characteristics (age, education level, income level) should come in the last section. Topic questions that are likely to be objectionable (asking about touchy subjects such as sexuality, religious beliefs or illegal behavior) should be placed just before the personal items at the end of the questionnaire.

Furthermore, try to evaluate how the order of the questions might have affected respondents’ tendency to answer. For instance, a poll might ask about how much trust respondents have in the federal government. If the question is asked as a stand-alone question without any preceding “set-up” questions, you are likely to get a response that reflects Americans’ general dislike of big bureaucracies.

However, if the question about trust in government is preceded by questions asking about trust in a number of programs that Americans generally support (Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, programs to support wounded military veterans), the question about trust in the government as a whole would reflect a very different response. Respondents would have been reminded about the things that the federal government does that are generally supported, and hence their answer about trust in the government would be different than it would be by asking that one question in isolation.