General Research Tips
Leading Questions

A leading question is one which attempts to guide the respondent's answer. Some of the seedier political pollsters are great at asking such questions -- questions like "Would you vote for John Smith, a man who has been known to break campaign promises?" They then go on to report that, according to their polls, John Smith's opponent is heavily favored to win. Fortunately, the polls you see in the media, particularly those sponsored by major networks, newspapers, and periodicals take a straightforward approach to polling; that is, they avoid using leading questions.

In the above example, the intent of the question is to mislead the public. There is another, more stealthy type of leading question -- the type of question which has the potential of misleading the sponsor of the survey. I call this "wishful" leading question. This is a question which is directed toward providing the sponsor of the survey with a course of action towards which the sponsor is favorably predisposed. A friend recently showed me an excellent example of such a question.

My friend received a questionnaire in the mail asking him for his opinion regarding an upcoming charitable walk. I'll change the name of the sponsor of the survey, and change the example somewhat to protect the identity of the sponsor, a fine nonprofit organization. Let's just say it was a walk to encourage teenagers not to commit suicide. Based on the questions in the survey, the sponsor of the study apparently wanted to change the location of the walk's starting point from where it had been in previous years. Assuming this was the intent of the questionnaire, there are a number of ways to ascertain how the "walking" public would react to a change of venue. One way is to simply ask "which would you prefer as a starting point for the walk, location A or location B?" Another way to obtain an answer is to split the sample in half and ask one half how likely they would be to participate in the walk if it were held at location A, and ask the same of the other half of the sample with regard to location B. The sponsor of this "suicide" study (the name somehow seems more appropriate to me all the time) chose an entirely different route.

They worded their question in the following manner: "We are considering changing from location A to location B this year. Would you be willing to walk starting from location B, if it meant that hundreds more teenage suicides would be avoided?" Now, it seems to me that aside from providing researchers with a good laugh, this question serves no purpose whatsoever. The sponsor will undoubtedly find that location B is preferred to location A by a wide margin, even if the majority actually prefer location A. The danger in this is that participation in the walk has the potential to decline because the survey led the sponsor to change the walk to the true second choice location.

The morale of the story? If you really know what action you want to take, don't try to twist the research to support your conclusion. Researchers are truth seekers. If you can't bring yourself to seek the truth, save yourself time and money by not researching the issue.