Survey respondents are often asked to report the frequency with which they engage in a certain behavior by checking the appropriate alternative from a list of response categories provided to them. A psychological research program, reviewed in the present paper, indicates that response alternatives are not only measurement devices but constitute a source of information for the respondent. Specifically, respondents assume that the average or typical behavior is reflected by values stated in the middle range of the response alternatives and that the extremes of the list reflect the extremes of the distribution. This assumption affects their own responses in various ways. First, respondents use the range of the response alternatives as a frame of reference in estimating their own behavioral frequencies and report higher frequencies on scales that present high rather than low frequency response alternatives. Second, respondents extract comparison information from their own location on the response scale and use this information in making comparative judgments. Finally, if the target behavior is open to interpretation, as is often the case when subjective experiences are assessed, respondents use the response alternatives to determine the exact reference of the question. Accordingly, the same question in combination with different response alternatives is likely to assess different experiences. Implications for questionnaire construction are discussed.
Schwarz, N. (1990). What respondents learn from scales: The informative functions of response alternatives. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2(3), 274-285.