Once respondents understand a self-report question, they must formulate an answer. The processes involved in constructing an answer vary depending on the type of self-report being made. When reporting on the frequency of a specific behavior, for instance, respondents might be able to search their memory, count the number of occasions on which the behavior occurred, and report the counted value. When reporting an attitude, on the other hand, respondents must search their memory for relevant information about the object, compare the attitude object to some relevant standard of comparison, and then make a judgment about their feelings toward that object (Schwarz, 1999). In this section, we distinguish between self-reports of behaviors and events that have occurred in the past, and self-reports of ongoing psychological phenomena (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, and intentions). We acknowledge, however, that this is not the only way to categorize self-report judgments, and that many self-reports do not fit neatly into either category.
Retrospective self-reports on events and behaviors. Many self-report questions ask participants to retrospectively evaluate the frequency, intensity, or some other characteristic of an event, a behavior, or a psychological phenomenon that was experienced in the past. This type of report can include self-reports of specific behaviors (e.g., "Did you vote in the last election?" or "During the past month, how many times have you been to the hospital?"), self-reports of events (e.g., "Have you ever been laid off from a job?"), and even self-reports of psychological phenomena (e.g., "How much pain did you feel over the course of the past hour?" or "How often have you felt unhappy over the past month?"). To answer this type of self-report question, respondents should simply be able to search their memory and compute a response. Unfortunately, although this idealized process might occur in a few rare occasions, limitations of memory are likely to complicate the recall of relevant information. Specifically, when the behavior or event is fairly frequent, people may forget about certain instances and underreport. Alternatively, if the phenomenon is somewhat rare, participants may be likely to overreport or to telescope—to remember it as having occurred within a particular reference period although it happened at some point before or after (Loftus, Smith, Klinger, & Fiedler, 1992; Sudman & Bradburn, 1973).
To deal with these problems, researchers can use a number of different strategies. First, researchers can limit their questions to behaviors and events that are likely to be recalled. For example, accuracy of recall usually decreases as the length of time since the event increases, and therefore recent events will be remembered better than more distant events (Brad-burn, Rips, & Shevell, 1987). Similarly, accuracy tends to decrease as the length of the reference period increases, and therefore, accuracy can be maintained by focusing on relatively short reference periods. Unfortunately, there are disadvantages of these approaches. For example, Schwarz et al. (1998) noted that when assessing rare behaviors, short reference periods might lead to frequent zero responses. In addition, it may not always be possible to ask people about events soon after they have occurred. Thus, there may be certain research questions that require longer time periods or longer delays.
When researchers cannot limit the focus of their investigation to easily remembered phenomena, they can use alternative strategies that have been shown to improve recall. For example, providing meaningful temporal boundaries for reference periods (e.g., important life events), allowing respondents adequate time to recall events, providing recall cues, and breaking the reference period down into smaller periods (a technique called decomposition) may all improve accuracy (see Tourangeau et al., 2000, and Schmitt, this volume, chap. 2, for a review). Even variations in the order in which people are asked to remember events may affect recall. Loftus et al. (1992), for example, showed that having people remember events in a chronological order was more successful than having people remember events in a reverse chronological order.
Yet even with these techniques, recall is likely to be inaccurate in many situations. People are unlikely to have specific memories of each and every occurrence of a behavior, and reports of past experiences may reflect estimation processes rather than direct memory processes (Strube, 1987). Thus, a third strategy is to develop a better understanding of the estimation processes that respondents use when searching their memory and when responding to retrospective questions. By doing so, researchers may be better able to understand the ways that these answers are flawed and better able to interpret patterns of responses that may not reflect a direct memory of the underlying event (Pearson, Ross, & Dawes, 1992).
For instance, Tourangeau et al. (2000) outlined four broad strategies that individuals can use when reporting on the frequency of behaviors or events (also see Blair & Burton, 1987). In some cases, individuals may be able to remember specific episodic information and then extrapolate from those instances to determine an overall frequency. In other cases, individuals may not search episodic memory at all. Instead, they may rely on general ideas about the behaviors they exhibit. For example, when asked to report on specific foods that they ate over the past week, respondents may rely on general knowledge about what they typically eat rather than searching memory for specific instances from the past week. Respondents may also use what Tourangeau et al. call a "general impression" approach in which very little information is actually accessed from memory. Instead, respondents form a general impression and translate that impression into a meaningful response. Strategies within this approach range from pure guessing to translating a vague notion to a specific answer based on contextual information (e.g., the available response options; Schwarz, Hippler, Deutsch, & Strack, 1985). Finally, for certain types of frequency judgments, people may have a stored tally that they can report with little effort. For example, graduate students who are on the job market may be able to quickly access a stored report of how many journal articles they have published in their career.
A variety of factors may influence the strategies people use. These different strategies may, in turn, affect the judgment at which people arrive. For instance, characteristics of the individuals themselves may influence judgments. Ross (1989) posited that implicit theories of personal stability and change influence the way people construct retrospective judgments of behaviors, traits, and attitudes. Specifically, he argued that recall of personal experiences and attributes involves a two-step process in which people first judge their present status and then determine whether this is different from where they were in the past. People's implicit theories about whether they are the same or different may then influence the information recalled (Pearson et al., 1992).
In addition to characteristics of the respondent, aspects of the question itself can influence frequency estimates. Schwarz et al. (1985) demonstrated this in an experiment designed to assess the impact that available response options have on people's answers. In their study, participants were asked to estimate how much television they watch on a daily basis. In one condition, participants responded on a scale that ranged from "up to a half hour" to "more than two and a half hours"; in a second condition, participants responded on a scale that ranged from "up to two and a half hours" to "more than four and a half hours." Participants in the former condition reported watching television for a shorter period of time than did participants in the latter condition. This pattern of findings is consistent with a "general impression" approach to answering self-report questions. Some respondents may quickly formulate a general idea about how much television they watch and then translate that general notion into a meaningful response based on contextual information. For instance, a respondent may believe that he or she watches a lot of television compared to other individuals. He or she may then simply mark the highest category regardless of what the anchor for that category is.
More general features of the task may also influence recall. Blair and Burton (1987) identified five features of the self-report task that may influence which strategy individuals will use in responding to a particular question. Specifically, they argued that the effort required to complete a task, the motivation of the respondent to expend the necessary effort, the accessibility of the events or behaviors to be remembered, the availability of additional estimation processes besides searching episodic memory, and other task features "that encourage or require particular cognitive processes" (p. 282) are all likely to affect recall. Thus, even when respondents are asked to respond to similar questions, various task features may make it more or less likely that they will engage in a systematic search of their memory. These processes may result in different self-reported judgments for very similar questions.
Robinson and Clore (2002a) recently proposed a model of emotional self-report that builds on these ideas (also see Robinson & Neighbors, this volume, chap. 9). Specifically, they argued that different characteristics of the emotion judgment lead to different types of processing. Individuals who are asked to describe an ongoing emotional experience can access and report this experiential information quite easily. In addition, when asked to report on recent emotions experienced over relatively short periods of time, individuals can search their mem ory and retrospectively reconstruct their emotional experience. However, beyond periods of a few hours, this task gets very difficult, and participants are more likely to rely on semantic knowledge including beliefs about how they should feel in such a situation. Thus, respondents may give very different information when asked to report how they are feeling right now than if they were asked to remember their current feelings at some later point. The latter judgments may be more likely to be influenced by beliefs and stereotypes.
To test this idea, Robinson, Johnson, and Shields (1998) induced emotion in a group of participants and then randomly assigned participants to report on their emotion immediately (the online condition) or after a week-long delay (the retrospective condition). In accordance with their predictions, sex differences in reports of emotion were only found in the retrospective condition. Robinson et al. also asked a third group of participants to imagine how they would feel in this situation, and participants in this hypothetical condition showed sex differences in emotional reports that were similar to the sex differences in the retrospective condition.
Studies that examine retrospective reports of emotion should also alert readers to an additional complicating factor in global self-assessment. Certain reports may require participants to go beyond simply counting the number of occurrences. For instance, researchers may be interested in determining how much pain a person has felt over the course of a week. Presumably, the researcher would want to know the number of occasions during which a respondent felt pain in addition to the duration and intensity of those episodes. An overall judgment of pain would require the integration of the frequency, duration, and intensity information. Unfortunately, this type of integration is difficult to do, and judgments that require such computations are very difficult to make (Kahneman, 1999).
For instance, Kahneman and his colleagues have shown that respondents often neglect the duration of an episode when making an overall evaluation (although see Ariely, Kahneman, & Loewenstein, 2000, for a discussion of some unresolved issues regarding this effect). In one study that demonstrated this effect, Redelmeier and Kahneman (1996) examined the amount of pain patients experienced during a colonoscopy. Participants reported their pain every minute during the procedure, and then at the end of the procedure they provided an overall evaluation of the amount of pain they experienced. Redelmeier and Kahneman showed that the duration of the painful experience was relatively unimportant in determining the overall evaluation of the procedure. Instead, two factors—the peak intensity and the end intensity—were strongly predictive of the overall evaluation. Participants seemed to focus on the worst pain they experienced during the procedure and the pain they experienced at the end of the procedure when computing an overall evaluation.
Redelmeier, Katz, and Kahneman (2003) took advantage of this "peak/end" phenomenon to improve patients' evaluation of a colonoscopy procedure. In their study, two groups of participants went through similar colonoscopies, with pain that varied from mild to fairly extreme over the course of the procedure. For one group of participants, the procedure was then unnecessarily extended with a period of mild pain. The group who experienced the extended procedure reported a more positive global evaluation than the group that experienced the shorter procedure. This study and others like it (e.g., Fredrickson & Kahneman, 1993; Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, & Redelmeier, 1993; Varey & Kahneman, 1992) demonstrate that global judgments that require computations beyond simple counting often involve heuristic processes that lead to judgments that are not necessarily logical.
Self-reports of ongoing psychological phenomena. Reporting the frequency and intensity of past experiences is clearly a complicated process. But additional processes come into play when people are asked to report on psychological constructs like attitudes, intentions, and beliefs. For instance, when reporting on an attitude, respondents must first develop an understanding of the object to be evaluated, search their memory for relevant information about the object, and then determine how they feel about it (Schwarz, 1999). Similar processes must occur when reporting on beliefs and intentions, although there may not be any evaluative component with these latter reports.
Initially, researchers interested in this type of self-report judgment relied on what is known as a "file-drawer" model of psychological judgment (Tourangeau et al., 2000, for a review of these early theories). According to the file-drawer model, when researchers ask people to respond to a self-report item (e.g., an attitude question or a personality item), individuals should have ready-made responses that they can simply access and report. Subsequent research has shown that self-reports of psychological phenomena are rarely made in this way. Instead, people often construct judgments on the spot using information available to them at the time (Schwarz, 1999). Some of this information— chronically accessible information—may be used very consistently from one judgment occasion to the next. Other temporarily accessible information may be used inconsistently across occasions. Judgments based on chronically accessible information should be stable across situations, whereas judgments based on temporarily accessible information will likely be unstable over time (Schimmack, Diener, & Oishi, 2002).
To demonstrate that respondents do use temporarily accessible information to construct attitude judgments on the spot, Schwarz and Clore (1983) examined the situational factors that influenced judgments about satisfaction with life. In their study, experimenters called participants and asked them about their life satisfaction either on a warm, sunny day or on a cold, rainy day. Presumably, people should feel better on the sunny day than on the rainy day. If people construct satisfaction judgments on the spot, then judgments may be influenced by current mood. In accordance with this prediction, satisfaction judgments were higher on the sunny day than on the rainy day.
Interestingly, Schwarz and Clore (1983) were able to demonstrate how the temporarily accessible mood information was used in constructing global satisfaction judgments. Mood effects have repeatedly been shown to influence judgments, but there has been debate about the process that underlies this effect (see Schwarz & Clore, 1996, for a review). Some researchers argue that mood affects judgment by increasing the likelihood that mood-congruent information will be accessible at the time of judgment (e.g., Bower, 1981; Isen, Shalker, Clark, & Karp, 1978). A person in a good mood who is asked to make a satisfaction judgment may be able to remember more positive aspects of his or her life than would someone in a bad mood, and this increased recall of positive information would lead to higher satisfaction judgments. Schwarz and Strack (1999), on the other hand, argued that people's current mood serves as "a parsimonious indicator of their well-being in general" (p. 75). In other words, rather than thinking carefully about the conditions in their lives, people may simply consider how they feel at that moment and use that as a proxy for a more carefully constructed judgment. To demonstrate that this process is likely occurring, Schwarz and Clore manipulated situational factors in such a way as to have participants discount the informational value of their current mood. Specifically, in one condition, the caller first asked participants how the weather was at their location. Presumably, this manipulation alerted the participant to the fact that their mood might be due to the weather. In this condition, there were no differences between people who were asked about their satisfaction on sunny days versus those who were asked on rainy days.
Research shows that many different types of information can be used in self-reported judgments. For instance, when judging one's satisfaction with life, a person presumably reviews the conditions in his or her life and uses that information to make a judgment. Unless the search is always exhaustive, anything that makes relevant information more salient at the time of judgment will increase the likelihood that that information will be used. Thus, simply asking people to think about relevant information before making a judgment will increase the probability that that information will be used. Schwarz et al. (1991; also see Strack, Martin, & Schwarz, 1988), for example, showed that asking people about their satisfaction with life immediately after they were asked about their satisfaction with their relationship increased the correlation between responses to the two questions (as long as non-
redundancy norms were not activated). Presumably, by making the relationship salient at the time of judgment, the experimenters increased the likelihood that the respondent would use that information when making the life satisfaction judgment.
In addition, making an evaluative judgment of some object often requires comparing that judgment to some additional standard (Schwarz, 1999). Thus, any situational factors that influence the comparison standards that participants use will influence their evaluation. For instance, Strack, Schwarz, and Gschneidinger (1985) asked participants to report on three positive or negative life events that happened to them in the recent or distant past. Then, participants were asked to rate their current life satisfaction. Presumably, participants who reported on recent events would exhibit assimilation effects in which the recent positive events made their current life seem better and recent negative events made their current life seem worse. Participants who reported on more distant events, on the other hand, should exhibit contrast effects in which the positive and negative events were part of a previous state of affairs against which his or her current life could be compared. Not surprisingly, the participants who reported recent positive events reported higher life satisfaction than participants who reported recent negative life events. However, participants who reported three distant positive events actually reported lower satisfaction than participants who reported distant negative events. This study shows that salient information about comparison standards may also affect evaluative judgments of an object itself.
A complete review of all the sources of information that could influence self-reported judgments is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is important to note that respondents often use information that is not always obvious. For instance, Schwarz and Clore (1996) reviewed evidence that people use feelings as information, even if those feelings have very little to do with the judgment itself. Schwarz, Bless, Strack, Klumpp, Rittenauer-Schatka, and Simons (1991) demonstrated this in a study that investigated whether people use the perceived difficulty of recalling trait-relevant behaviors when making personality judgments. Specifically, they asked one group of participants to report 6 examples of assertive behaviors in which they engaged, and they asked a second group of participants to report 12 examples of assertive behaviors. The former task should be accomplished more easily than the second task, and participants may use feelings of difficulty in retrieval as information about their standing on a trait. In accordance with their hypotheses, Schwarz et al. found that participants in the 12-behavior condition rated themselves as being lower in assertiveness than did participants in the 6-behavior condition although participants in the 12-behavior condition remembered and reported more assertive behaviors. Studies like this one show that a broad array of informational factors can influence subjective judgments.
The major question for researchers who use self-reports is the extent to which global self-assessments are driven by irrelevant and temporarily accessible information versus relevant and chronically accessible information. Although numerous experimental studies show that temporarily accessible information does affect judgments, other correlational research shows that chronically accessible information may outweigh these irrelevant factors. To address this question, Schimmack, Diener, and Oishi (2002) explicitly asked participants to report on the information that they used to compute well-being judgments. They found that people reported using chronically accessible information when making judgments, and the factors that respondents said they used did, in fact, correlate with their satisfaction judgments. In addition, those individuals who reported using different sources of information at different times had less stability in their well-being scores. Similarly, Eid and Diener (2004) showed that factors like current mood do not play a large role in subjective reports of well-being. Instead, well-being reports are relatively stable, even in the face of changing mood across situations.
Was this article helpful?