Making sense of standardized survey questions: The influence of reference periods and their repetition

To provide an informative answer to a question, communicators need to determine its intended meaning which often requires extensive inferences based on contextual information. The current studies test if a given piece of contextual information is more influential when it is unique to the question asked rather than shared by several questions. Two experiments with 271 college students demonstrate that respondents draw on the length of the reference period in interpreting frequency questions. When the same question is presented with a long reference period (six months), respondents interpret it as pertaining to less frequent and more extreme instances of a behavior than when it is presented with a short reference period (one day). As predicted, however, this influence of the reference period on question interpretation is only observed when the reference period is unique to the target question. When the same reference period is repeatedly used in multiple questions, its use is no longer considered informative and its influence on question interpretation is eliminated. Theoretical and methodological implications are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2007 APA, all rights reserved)