Testing a Cue-list to Aid Attitude Recall in Surveys: A Field Experiment

W. van der Vaart

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Survey questionnaires commonly include retrospective questions on attitudes as a substitute for concurrently obtained assessments. Empirical studies have shown that these retrospectively obtained attitudes often deviate seriously from the attitudes for which they are substitutes: the attitude that respondents held in the past. In spite of this, hardly any research has been done to examine whether aided recall methods might be able to minimize such a discrepancy. The present study provides a first empirical test of a cue-list which was used as an aided recall method for retrospective attitude questions about unemployment. The cue-list consisted of a standardized set of cues – advantages and disadvantages of being unemployed – that was added to a retrospective attitude question on unemployment. It was tested in a randomized field experiment during the second wave (1991) of a longitudinal social survey in the Netherlands. The cue-list was expected to enhance the reconstruction of the past attitudes of those respondents who had actually been unemployed at the time of the first interview. Respondents who had not been unemployed were treated as a control group. The agreement between the recalled attitude and the attitude reported in the first wave of the survey, four years earlier, was used to evaluate the effects of the cue-list. Contrary to expectation, the cue-list led to a lower instead of a higher level of agreement. However, in line with Tulving’s encoding specificity principle, the “unemployment” cue-list did have this unexpected effect only for the respondents who had been unemployed at the time of the first interview and not for the control group. In addition, the cue-list led to a more positive attitude towards unemployment, in retrospect, for the former group of respondents. Exploratory analyses suggest that the cues might have triggered positive features of unemployment that could have been easily overlooked otherwise. Based on the outcomes, the risks of applying cues are discussed
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-378
JournalJournal of Official Statistics: an international quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • retrospective questions
  • accuracy
  • memory
  • behavior

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