Karla Raines and I had dinner with another couple last week that shares our background and interest in social research. We were talking about the challenges of understanding the decisions of other people if you don’t understand their background, and how we can have biases that we don’t even realize.
It brought me back to the topic of how we design and ask questions on surveys, and my favorite example of unintentional background bias on the part of the designer.
A common question, both in research and in social conversations, is the ubiquitous, “Do you have kids?” It’s an easy question to answer, right? If you ask Ward and June Cleaver, they’ll immediately answer, “We have two, Wally and Beaver”. (June might go with the more formal ‘Theodore’, but you get the point.)
When we ask the question in a research context, we’re generally asking it for a specific reason. Children often have a major impact on how people behave, and we’re usually wondering if there’s a correlation on a particular issue.
But ‘do you have kids’ is a question that may capture much more than the classic Wally and Beaver household. If we ask that question, the Cleaver family will answer ‘yes’, but so will a 75 year-old who has two kids, even if those kids are 50 years old and grandparents of their own. So ‘do you have kids’ isn’t the question we want to ask in most contexts.
What if we expanded the question to ‘do you have children under 18’? It gets a bit tricky here if we put ourselves in the minds of respondents, and this is where our unintentional background bias may come into play. Ward and June will still answer yes, but what about a divorced parent who doesn’t have custody? He or she may accurately answer yes, but there’s not a child living in their home. Are we capturing the information that we think we’re capturing?
And what about a person who’s living with a boyfriend and the boyfriend’s two children? Or the person who has taken a foster child into the home? Or the grandparent who is raising a grandchild while the parents are serving overseas? Or the couple whose adult child is temporarily back home with her own kids in tow?
If we’re really trying to figure out how children impact decisions, we need to observe and recognize the incredible diversity of family situations in the modern world, and how that fits into our research goal. Are we concerned about whether the survey respondent has given birth to a child? If they’re a formal guardian of a child? If they’re living in a household that contains children, regardless of the relationship?
The proper question wording will depend on the research goals, of course. We often are assessing the impact of children within a household when we ask these questions, so we find ourselves simply asking, “How many children under the age of 18 are living in your home?”, perhaps with a followup about the relationship where necessary. But It’s easy to be blinded by our own life experiences when designing research, and the results can lead to error in our conclusions.
So the next time you’re mingling at a party, we suggest not asking “Do you have kids”, and offer that you should instead ask, “How many children under the age of 18 are living in your home?” It’s a great conversation starter and will get you much better data about the person you’re chatting with.