Can they just get along? Situated Cognition and Survey Response

Finally, I’m going to take a moment to talk about Norbert Schwarz’s JPSM Distinguished Lecture on March 30! I’ve attended a few events and had a few experiences lately that I’m eager to blog about, but sometimes life has plans for us that don’t involve blogging. Today, I would say, is no different, except that I woke up thinking about this lecture!

Ok, enough about me, more about Schwartz.

I should start by saying that I am a longtime fan of Schwartz. In Fall 2009, I had just discovered the MLC program and finished what was a whirlwind application process, and I was first trying to wrap my head around the field of sociolinguistics and its intersection with my career in survey methodology. I had attended a presentation of an ethnography of communication pilot study to the McDonough School of Business, and, to my great shock, I came across a survey methodology paper that spoke of the Logic of Conversation and the role of Gricean maxims in survey responses. This fantastic piece is the work of Norbert Schwarz, and I’ve kept it nearby ever since. In it, Schwartz addresses the conversational expectations of survey respondents and shows how they respond not only to the question at hand, but also to these expectations.

It’s common in every survey to look at some of the responses and wonder how in the world they could have come about. I addressed this in an earlier blog post, where one researcher had gone as far as to call respondents stupid. Oftentimes we think of respondents “getting it right” or “getting it wrong.” But there is a larger phenomena underlying what appear to be strange responses, and it’s something that we experience when we attempt to respond to surveys.

We write survey questions with a mechanistic expectation, that if we ask a question, we will hear back the answer to that question, but we neglect to consider the fact that communication is not mechanistic. Of course, we are not necessarily aware of this. We’re aware of misunderstandings, but we’re not often aware of the tiny sphere of focus and interpretive frames that we apply to every utterance we here and utter. This is no fault of our own. This is a survival tool. We simply cannot process all of the information that we’re constantly inundated with.

In survey research, we’re aware that small differences in question format can influence responses. We’re aware that changing a scale will change the numeric range of the responses. We see that changing labels on a scalar question changes the results. We’re aware that sometimes answers appear to be absolute contradictions and seem to us to be impossible. These are especially large challenges for us, and they are the purview of linguistics.

Schwartz, however, is not a linguist. He is a cognitice scientist. And his lecture was not about the linguistic basis behind apparently wonky response phenomenon. Instead, he spoke about situated cognition.

Situated cognition makes a lot of intuitive sense. It is a proven psychological phenomena that shows that we don’t hold attitudes, beliefs and responses at a certain location in our mind, rather we recreate them each time. Instead we create or recreate them each time. This process allows for much more of an influence from “what’s on our mind,” making situational or contextual factors much more important, and decreasing the reliability, or repeatability, of survey responses. This is not a hard egg for someone (me) with a background in cognitive science and sociolinguistics to swallow, but the effect on the audience was remarkable. How does someone from a field that thrives on the mechanistic nature of responses take the suggestion that what they’re measuring is not a distinctly measurable entity so much as a complicated, potentially unreliable act of nature?

One of the discussants used a couple that he was not very fond of as an example of a stable opinion. I believe that this example lends itself well to further exploration. If he had just met the couple, and he had had a negative experience with them, his evaluation of his opinion toward the couple would depend on the degree of negativity of the experience, his predisposition to give or not give them the benefit of the doubt, and his degree of concern about expressing a negative opinion to the interviewer or survey researchers. After this point, these factors will be increasingly influenced by his further experiences with the people and the degree of negativity, positivity or neutrality of the experiences, and the recency and saliency of the experiences. Essentially, his response would reflect a complicated underlying equation and be the output of situated cognition.

But what is a survey researcher supposed to do with this information?

It would be easy at this point to throw the baby out with the bathwater and cast doubt on the whole survey and response process. But that’s not necessary, and that’s not the point.

The point is that each method of analysis has its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. It is important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your methods in order to better understand what exactly you are finding and what your findings mean. And it also behooves us to supplement across methodologies. A reliable survey response is a strong finding, but it can mask underlying factors that can be accessed through other methodologies. As Pew demonstrated in their Kony 2012 report, mixing methodologies can lead to a more clear, nuanced narrative than any single method could yield.

It would be easy to dismiss Schwartz’s reporting, or to dismiss survey methodology. But dismissing either would be foolish, rash and unnecessary. Instead, let’s build on both. A wider foundation can build a better house, but the best house will need to take down some old walls and rethink its floorplan.

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