MARKET RESEARCH: The Lie Detectors - Are questionnaire respondents telling the truth about what they think, but not what they really do?

Agencies want to know what people want, what they think, and what

they think they want. The problems start when you simply ask consumers a

question and expect an honest answer.

Freud believed people lied, both to others and to themselves, therefore

their answers to questions should never be taken at face value. While

academic feminists may consider him a phallocentric misogynist,

advertisers may show a greater appreciation of his Viennese musings and

their relevance to the questionnaire. Freud drew attention to the

knotted contrariness of the human condition, which he saw as consisting

of complex motives, mixed feelings and always being in two minds.

Being conscious is not to know what one wants, or to want what one


However, when it comes to answering questionnaires, contrariness and

being in two minds are not what the market demands. Clients are

impressed by quantified results - they look and feel impressive.

While social psychologists often use questionnaires in their research,

their competitors in physiological psychology often expose the disparity

between what people say versus what their body is saying. The "lie

detector" is the most well-known example and other forms of

physiological monitoring have revealed glaring economies of truth among

people answering questionnaires.

The most pronounced effects occur when probing topics that are more

politically or personally sensitive. For example, in one study subjects

who considered themselves liberal-minded and colour blind when it comes

to race were physiologically monitored during a social gathering. Their

subconscious physiological responses told another story - their stress

and tension levels went up when black people entered the room.

Sexual desire is also riddled with deception and self-deception. The

Government believed they could get to the truth about the population's

sex lives by simply asking them. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes

and Lifestyles "provides comprehensive and reliable information based on

sophisticated statistical analysis of the responses given by nearly

20,000 Britons".

The results were intended to enable better "sexual health" and "family

planning" ad campaigns. Despite the British public's questionnaire

claims of engaging in safe, intelligent sex, their bodies appeared to

have a life of their own. Rates of sexually transmitted disease,

patterns of unplanned pregnancy and the new DNA findings that up to 10

per cent of children are secretly fathered as the result of the mother's

infidelity - demonstrated that people lie.

This brings into question the validity of the questionnaire and

interview - i.e. are they really measuring what they are intended to

when compared with other independent sources of information that ignore

what people say and monitor what they actually do?

While few questionnaires address such sensitive topics, the moral of the

story is that one should adopt a healthy scepticism of questionnaires,

surveys and focus groups promising to deliver the truth about


These methods can be highly accurate and economical - provided they

address appropriate issues and are constructed and conducted in the

right way.

In his book Attitudes and Their Measurement, Professor Nigel Lemon

observed: "The interview, and also the self-administered questionnaire

to some extent, are used within a social situation, and the observations

made within that setting are likely to reflect a number of extraneous

factors from the testing situation itself."

When considering these approaches to market research, some factors to

take into consideration are:

Choosing face-to-face or voice-to-voice interviews as opposed to

self-administered questionnaires. Will the respondent remain anonymous?

The interviewer is also an issue. Their appearance, age, sex, social

class, race and voice will in some way influence answers to questions.

Yet, good communicators - like good cops - elicit more confessions.

Structured versus unstructured interviews. One advantage of the

interview is the facility it provides the researcher to vary the form of

the questions used and to probe and follow up replies in ways that would

be impossible with the traditional form of self-administered


The organisation of the interview or questionnaire. In what order will

the questions be asked? It is thought that the most searching questions

are best placed in the middle section, where, Professor Lemon states:

"Hopefully the respondent's commitment to helping the interviewer has

been obtained, and he will be fresh enough to give the questions his

full attention. Opinion is divided as to the most suitable place for

risky or embarrassing items." However, most agree, not at the


Form of the questions. Free response, multiple choice or forced choice

between pairs?

Wording of the questions. In pre-testing, one can deliberately ask

several kinds of questions on the same issue in order to assess the

effects of wording on responses. The golden rules are that questions

should be clear, short and unambiguous, and neither biased or loaded in

any particular direction. However, as one academic put it, in practice,

there are no good or bad questions, "only instruments that fulfil or

fail to fulfil the purposes for which they are intended". When it comes

to manipulating the truth out of your potentially dishonest or confused

respondents, the ends justify the means.

Validity. Agencies should use their nous in deciding whether the

questionnaire is really measuring what they want it to. Does it

correspond to your gut instinct about the subject matter? Are there

other sources of information or insights that corroborate your


Often in social psychology, as well as in advertising, questionnaires

are intended to confirm - in a respectable, quantified manner - what we

suspect already.

Therefore one should never ignore one's own experience, instincts and

intuition in formulating and deciding whether a questionnaire will

elicit accurate, honest responses.

Moreover, when it comes to designing questionnaires, an industry of

copywriters should be in an ideal position to play with words.