Methods for interpersonal incomparability, when respondents (from different cultures, genders, countries, or ethnic groups) understand survey questions in different ways; for developing theoretical definitions of complicated concepts apparently definable only by example (i.e., "you know it when you see it").
We address two long-standing survey research problems: measuring complicated concepts, such as political freedom or efficacy, that researchers define best with reference to examples and and what to do when respondents interpret identical questions in different ways. Scholars have long addressed these problems with approaches to reduce incomparability, such as writing more concrete questions – with uneven success. Our alternative is to measure directly response category incomparability and to correct for it. We measure incomparability via respondents’ assessments, on the same scale as the self-assessments to be corrected, of hypothetical individuals described in short vignettes. Since actual levels of the vignettes are invariant over respondents, variability in vignette answers reveals incomparability. Our corrections require either simple recodes or a statistical model designed to save survey administration costs. With analysis, simulations, and cross-national surveys, we show how response incomparability can drastically mislead survey researchers and how our approach can fix them.
When respondents use the ordinal response categories of standard survey questions in different ways, the validity of analyses based on the resulting data can be biased. Anchoring vignettes is a survey design technique, introduced by King, Murray, Salomon, and Tandon (2004), intended to correct for some of these problems. We develop new methods both for evaluating and choosing anchoring vignettes, and for analyzing the resulting data. With surveys on a diverse range of topics in a range of countries, we illustrate how our proposed methods can improve the ability of anchoring vignettes to extract information from survey data, as well as saving in survey administration costs.
We report the results of several randomized survey experiments designed to evaluate two intended improvements to anchoring vignettes, an increasingly common technique used to achieve interpersonal comparability in survey research. This technique asks for respondent self-assessments followed by assessments of hypothetical people described in vignettes. Variation in assessments of the vignettes across respondents reveals interpersonal incomparability and allows researchers to make responses more comparable by rescaling them. Our experiments show, first, that switching the question order so that self-assessments follow the vignettes primes respondents to define the response scale in a common way. In this case, priming is not a bias to avoid but a means of better communicating the question’s meaning. We then demonstrate that combining vignettes and self-assessments in a single direct comparison induces inconsistent and less informative responses. Since similar combined strategies are widely employed for related purposes, our results indicate that anchoring vignettes could reduce measurement error in many applications where they are not currently used. Data for our experiments come from a national telephone survey and a separate on-line survey.