Why are negative questions difficult to answer? On the processing of linguistic contrasts in surveys

Naomi Kamoen, Bregje Holleman, P. Mak, T. Sanders, H. van den Bergh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Previous studies show that respondents are generally more likely to disagree with negative survey questions (e.g., This book is bad. Yes/No) than to agree with positive ones (e.g., This book is good. Yes/No). In the current research, we related this effect to the cognitive processes underlying question answering. Using eye-tracking, we show that during the initial reading of the question, negative evaluative terms (e.g., bad) require more processing time than their positive counterparts (e.g., good). In addition to these small differences in the initial stages of question answering, large processing differences occur later in the question answering process: negative questions are re-read longer and more often than their positive counterparts. This is particularly true when respondents answer no rather than yes to negative questions. Hence, wording effects for contrastive questions probably occur because response categories such as Yes and No, do not carry an absolute meaning, but are given meaning relative to the evaluative term in the question (e.g., good/bad). As the answering of no to negative questions requires more processing effort in particular, a likely explanation for the occurrence of the wording effect is that no¬¬-answers to a negative questions convey a mitigated meaning. The activation of this additional pragmatic meaning causes additional processing effort and also causes respondents to pick a no-answer to negative questions relatively easily.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)613-635
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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