Talk doesn’t cook rice #MRX

survey designWelcome to Really Simple Surveys (RSS), the younger sibling of Really Simple Statistics. There are lots of places online where you can ponder over the minute details of complicated survey designs but very few places that make survey design quickly understandable to everyone. I won’t explain exceptions to the rule or special cases here. Let’s just get comfortable with the fundamentals.

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I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts. – John Locke
Never mistake motion for action. – Ernest Hemingway
Well done is better than well said. – Benjamin Franklin
Talk doesn’t cook rice.- Chinese Proverb
Actions speak louder than words – Gersham Bulkeley

I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Hey Annie, those people are all dead. I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.” Ok, ok, yes they are dead. Let me give you a few more examples that might be to your liking.

  • If gas prices go any higher, I’m going to walk to work.A TTC subway train at Warden station.
  • If bus passes get any more expensive, I’m going to drive to work.
  • I’m going to lose thirty pounds this year.
  • I’m going to say ‘No’ from now on.
  • I’m going to eat healthier from now on.
  • I’m going to call my mom more often.

As I’m sure you have, I’ve heard ALL of these comments from people and not one single comment was associated with follow through. People love to talk and complain and whine and promise, but they really don’t like to DO. And that brings us to today’s survey design suggestion.

Where ever possible, ask behaviour based questions instead of intention or theoretical questions. Here are a few examples:

Instead of: Do you plan to buy Frootloops in the next 7 days?
Try: Did you buy Frootloops in the last 7 days?

Instead of: Do you plan to switch to the subway train next month?
Try: Did you buy a transit pass this month?

Instead of: Do you call your mother more often now?
Try: How many times did you call your mother in the last 2 weeks?

Instead of: Are you eating healthier now?
Try: Over the last 7 days, how many times did you eat at a restaurant?

You see, the first type of question makes it really easy for people to sneak around the truth and make themselves feel better with a socially desirable or hopeful or acquiescent answer. But the only way to get around the truth of the second type of question is with an outright lie – and that’s just harder for most people to do. So if you’re looking for honesty, even in the face of seemingly easy questions, always try to come up with a behavioural based question. And call your mother!

It’s that simple!

3 responses

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  2. Annie,
    Great post on hypothetical versus actual behavior. As added boost to your argument, one of the oldest psychological/sociological adages is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

    You could even throw this post into the larger arena of social desirability bias in general. People often tend to answer questions in ways that they think make them look better. For example, when asking about attitudes toward sensitive/taboo subjects, one might consider asking how the respondent thinks “their friends” view the issue. This gives them an “out” to project their own view and attribute them to others rather than take responsibility themselves.

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks. That past behaviour quote is one of my favourites. Any time I write a survey, that’s the first thing of think of. 🙂

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