Attitude strength as an explanation for wording effects in political opinion questions

Bregje Holleman, Naomi Kamoen

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Survey methodological research shows over and again that contrastive wordings in attitude questions affect the answers obtained. Rugg (1940) was the first to establish that a question about freedom of speech phrased with the verb ‘allow’ elicited more ‘no’-answers compared to the number of ‘yes’-answers to the opposite question with ‘forbid’. Hence, respondents’ evaluations of free speech seemed more positive when a negative question had been asked. Explanations have been focusing on a difference in connotations of positive and negative wordings (Schuman & Presser 1981; Holleman 2000). Another type of explanation for these wording effects can be derived from dual-route theories of information processing. Such theories (e.g., the ELM by Petty & Cacioppo or the satisficing model by Krosnick) proposed that people with strong attitudes, tend to process information about that issue more deeply, whereas people with weak attitudes tend to perform shallow or heuristic processing. By doing so, this latter group will be more susceptible to superficial characteristics of the way the information is conveyed (e.g., wording, or source credibility). While theoretically plausible, empirical evidence in extant survey research is very heterogeneous: often the wording effect for contrastive questions can be explained by (indicators of) attitude strength, but equally often attitude strength is found unrelated to the asymmetry. These heterogeneous findings might be due to differences in the operationalization of attitude strength. In the current study, we tested the occurrence of wording effects for contrastive attitude questions once more for respondents holding strong and weak attitudes, in the context of political attitude questions in a Voting Advice Application. We manipulated the wording of 14 questions in one survey, which showed an overall wording effect in the direction already established by Rugg (1940). The wording effects were small compared to previous studies, which might be explained by the fact that a VAA is an opt-in survey with relatively highly motivated users. We proceeded by investigating the role of attitude strength as a cause for the asymmetries found. Operationalizing attitude strength by measuring political interest showed no relation to the asymmetries. Following on to research in political decision making we made an alternative operationalization in terms of respondents’ degree of political sophistication. In our study, variation in users’ level of political sophistication was systematically related to the size or occurrence of wording effects. The higher the political sophistication, the smaller the overall wording effect - and the group of VAA users with the highest levels of political sophistication were not susceptible to the effects of question wording at all. This seems support for an attitude strength explanation after all, and also for more context specific measures of motivation and strength than used previously.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventConference of the European Survey Research Association - Lisbon, Portugal
Duration: 17 Jul 201721 Jul 2017
Conference number: 7


ConferenceConference of the European Survey Research Association
Abbreviated titleESRA
Internet address


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