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Pre‐testing Sensitive Questions: Perceived Sensitivity, Comprehension, and Order Effects of Questions about Income and Weight

Margaret Vernon


Several new questions dealing with eating habits, family income, eligibility for food stamps, and body mass index are being considered as a supplement to the American Time Use Survey. This paper discusses issues involved in pretesting sensitive questions while addressing concerns about increased burden and possible order effects in the core survey. New questions were pretested with two phases of cognitive interviews designed to assess comprehension, perceived sensitivity of questions, and order effects. Special attention was paid to the questions about income and weight as they were anticipated to be the most sensitive questions proposed for the supplement. Cognitive testing results suggested the income question was difficult for participants to respond to and was perceived to be the most sensitive question in the supplement, followed by weight. The second phase of testing randomly varied the order of income and weight to assess order effects in perceived sensitivity. Income was always perceived to be more sensitive than weight. Cognitive testing methods for new item development and results of testing will be discussed.