Tips on “Reverse Wording” Survey Questions
It is good to use multiple survey questions to measure a particular attitude or opinion, and for many years experts on survey design recommended reversing the wording on some questions to get a stronger and more valid measure. For example, if we want to measure retirement confidence we might ask respondents how much they agree with the statement “I am confident that I will be able to live comfortably in retirement” and “I worry about being able to make ends meet in retirement.”
A recent meta-analysis in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that fewer and fewer researchers are using reverse wordings. Why? Because reversed wordings introduce ambiguities, make surveys more difficult for respondents, and often lead to increased levels of measurement error. Still, survey item reversals are considered a best practice because (1) they ensure fuller measurement of an attitude or opinion, (2) they keep respondents from answering carelessly, and (3) help correct for agreement bias. For this reason, the authors advocate “the continued use of reversed items in survey research” but they also caution researchers to “use them with care.”
Here are several of their specific recommendations we found most useful:
1. Tell respondents ahead of time to read and answer each item carefully because not all items are worded in the same direction.
2. Minimize distractions in the survey environment, or if the survey is online, ask respondents to close other work or online applications while completing the survey.
3. Avoid long questionnaires and question-sets with similar response formats, because the cognitive demands on respondents are already high if surveys are long and questions are repetitive.
4. Intersperse reversed items throughout the questionnaire with unrelated questions in between.
5. Include an equal number of reversed and non-reversed items if they are to be combined into a scale.
6. Avoid extreme item wording (such as very, strongly, completely, etc.) because it encourages “simultaneous disagreement” with opposite items.
7. Use negations sparingly, and instead use valid polar opposites (for example, use sad rather than not happy).
Not sure which way to turn with your survey questions? Don’t hesitate…feel free…or just plain call us for some quick advice. Either way we are happy to help!