Mix Negative and Positive Versions of Selections or Questions

A negatively phrased question one year followed the next year by the inverse positively phrased would mitigate the echo-chamber effect we have discussed elsewhere. “What are the biggest obstacles in your firm to knowledge management?” followed the next year with “What are the biggest incentives in your firm for knowledge management?” The technique of what I call “paused inverses” in a single survey also nails down key opinions and helps spot respondents who misread or miss-applied instructions. The technique fits bests with selections on a multiple-choice question or a ranking/rating question:

So, to give an example, if you have the selection to be rated, “The variety of employee benefits confuses me,” then you could have a reverse of that statement, such as “The variety of benefits pleases me.” People who agree with the positive statement should disagree with the negative one, and vice versa. That’s how you can be confident that your questions are clear, and the responses are consistent.

A cautious survey design matches a positively worded selection before or after a negatively worded counterpart. For a question or two that goes to the heart of what the survey wants to learn, the belt and suspenders approach could be justified. The technique also lessens the bias of a questionnaire when it presents both sides of the argument.

I have never tested this advice. Mostly, since I and my clients always want to ask more questions, we shy away from doubling any questions – what a waste of survey real estate! It lengthens the survey and may therefore reduce full participation. Deliberate mirror images of questions or selections might irritate alert respondents; they don’t want to answer a question twice or contort their brains to wrap around the reverse. Second, it also nags me that a portion of the responses hint that those who generated them failed to see the reversal; are they that sloppy, or worse, can I rely on the answers they gave if they might be opposite to their beliefs? Third, it is difficult to write positive and negative counterparts that don’t introduce extraneous, distorting ideas. “Fixed fees save time” may not be the reverse of “Fixed fees take more time.” Balanced polar sentiments are challenging to write.

While on the subject of positive and negative, note that with Likert questions the scales of positive and negative indicators are balanced.