Many of the questions of interest in surveying the welfare population request that the respondent report on retrospective behavior, often for periods covering several years or more (e.g., year of first receipt of AFDC benefits). Some of these questions require that the respondent date events of interest, thus requiring episodic retrieval of a specific event. Other questions request that respondents provide a numeric estimate (e.g., earnings from work last month); in these cases the respondent may rely on episodic retrieval (e.g., the more recent pay-check), reconstruction, an estimation strategy, or a combination of retrieval strategies to provide a response. As noted earlier, response strategies are often a function of the behavioral complexity experienced by the respondent; however, the strategy used by the respondent can be affected by the wording of the question.
Although both responses based on episodic enumeration and estimation are subject to measurement error, the literature suggests that questions which direct the respondent toward episodic enumeration tend to suffer from errors of omissions (underreports) due to incomplete memory searches on the part of the respondent, whereas responses based on estimation strategies result in both inclusion and exclusion errors, resulting in greater variance but unbiased population estimates (Sudman et al., 1996). The findings from Mathiowetz and Duncan (1986) illustrate the difference in reports based on estimation strategies as compared to episodic enumeration. In their study, population estimates of annual hours of unemployment for a 2-year reference period based on respondents' reports of unemployment hours were reasonably accurate. In contrast, when respondents had to report the months and years of individual spells of unemployment (requiring episodic enumeration) more than 60 percent of the individual spells of unemployment were not reported.
Several empirical investigations have identified means by which to improve the reporting of retrospective information for both episodic enumeration and estimation-based reports. These questionnaire design approaches include:
Event History Calendar. Work in the field of cognitive psychology has provided insight into the structure of autobiographic information in memory. The research indicates that "certain types of autobiographical memories are thematically and temporally structured within an hierarchical ordering" (Belli, 1998). Event history calendars have been found to be effective in reducing response error related to the reporting of what, when, and how often events occurred (Freedman et al., 1988). Whereas traditional survey instruments ask for retrospective reports through a set of discrete questions (e.g., "In what month and year did you last receive welfare payments?"), thereby emphasizing the discrete nature of events, event history calendars emphasize the relationship between events within broad thematic areas or life domains (work, living arrangements, marital status, child bearing and rearing). Major transitions within these domains such as getting married or divorced, giving birth to a child, moving into a new house, or starting a job, are identified by the respondent and recorded in such ways as to facilitate "an extensive use of autobiographical memory networks and multiple paths of memory associated with top-down, sequential, and parallel retrieval strategies" (Belli, 1998). If the question items of interest require the dating of several types of events, the literature suggests that the use of event history calendars will lead to improved reporting. For example, event history calendars could prove to be beneficial in eliciting accurate responses to questions such as "What was the year and month that you first received welfare cash assistance as an adult?"
Landmark Events. The use of an event history calendar is most beneficial if the questionnaire focuses on the dating and sequencing of events and behaviors across several life domains. In some cases, the questionnaire contains a limited number of questions for which the respondent must provide a date or a correct sequence of events. In these cases, studies have indicated that the use of landmark dates can improve the quality of reporting by respondents (Loftus and Marburger, 1983). Landmark events are defined as either public or personal landmarks; for some of these, the respondent can provide an accurate date (personal landmark such as birthday, anniversary) whereas public landmarks can be dated accurately by the researcher. Landmarks are effective for three reasons: (1) landmark dates make effective use of the cluster organization of memory; (2) landmark dates may convert a difficult absolute judgment of recency to an easier relative judgment; and (3) landmark dates may suggest to the respondent the need to pay attention to exact dates and not simply imprecise dates. One way to operationalize landmark dates is to begin the interview with the respondent noting personal and/or public landmark dates on a calendar that can be used for reference throughout the interview.
Use of Records. If the information has not been encoded in memory, the response quality will be poor no matter how well the questions have been constructed. For some information, the most efficient and effective means by which to improve the quality of the reported data is to have respondents access records. Several studies report an improvement in the quality of asset and income information when respondents used records (e.g., Maynes, 1968; Grondin and Michaud, 1994; Moore et al., 1996). Two factors often hinder questionnaire designers from requesting that respondents use records: interviewers' reluctance and mode of data collection. Although in some cases interviewers have been observed discouraging record use (Marquis and Moore, 1990), studies that request detailed income and expenditure information such as the SIPP and the National Medical Expenditure Survey, have both reported success in encouraging respondents to use records (Moore et al., 1996). Record use by respondents is directly related to the extent to which interviewers have been trained to encourage their use by respondents. For telephone interviews, the fear is that encouraging record use may encourage nonresponse; a small body of empirical literature does not support this notion (Grondin and Michaud, 1994). One form of record to consider is the prospective creation of a diary that is referenced by the respondent during a retrospective interview.
Recall versus Recognition. Any free-recall task, such as the enumeration of all sources of income, is a cognitively more difficult task than the task of recognition, such as, asking the respondent to indicate which of a list of income sources is applicable to his or her situation. Consider the two approaches taken in examples 1 and 2:
Example 1: In (PRIOR MONTH), did you receive any money or income from any other source? This might include (READ SLOWLY) unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, alimony, rent from a tenant or boarder, an income tax refund, foster child payments, stipends from training programs, grandparents' Social Security income, and so on.
Example 2: Next, I will read a list of benefit programs and types of support and I'd like you to tell me whether you or someone in your home gets this.
- Food stamps
- Child-care assistance
- Child support from a child's parent
- Social Security
In the first example, the respondent must process all of the items together; most likely after the first or second item on the list was read, the respondent failed to hear or process the remaining items on the list. Hence the list does not provide an effective recognition mechanism. In the second example, the respondent is given time to process each item on the list individually (the entire list consists of 20 items).
Complex Behavioral Experience. Simple behavioral experiences are relatively easy to report even over long reference periods whereas complex behavioral experiences can be quite difficult to reconstruct. For example, the experience of receiving welfare benefits continuously over a 12-month period is quite different from the experience of receiving benefits for 8 of the 12 months. The use of filter questions to identify those for whom the behavioral experience is complex would permit the questionnaire designer to concentrate design efforts on those respondents for whom the task is most difficult. Those with complex behavioral experiences could be questioned using an event history calendar whereas those for whom the recent past represents a steady state could be asked a limited number of discrete questions.
Recall Strategies. When respondents are asked to report a frequency or number of times an event or a behavior occurred, they draw on different response strategies to formulate a response. The choice of response strategy is determined, in part, by the actual number or frequency as well as the regularity of the behavior. Rare or infrequent events often are retrieved through episodic enumeration in which the respondent attempts to retrieve each occurrence of the event. Such strategies are subject to errors of omission as well as misdating of the event by the respondent. When the event or behavior of interest occurs frequently, respondents often will use some form of estimation strategy to formulate a response. These strategies include rule-based estimation (recall a rate and apply to time- frame of interest), automatic estimation (drawn from a sense of relative or absolute frequency), decomposition (estimate the parts and sum), normative expectations, or some form of heuristic, such as availability heuristic (based on the speed of retrieval). All estimation approaches are subject to error, but a well-designed questionnaire can both suggest the strategy for the respondent to use and attempt to correct for the expected biases. For example, if the behavior or event of interest is expected to occur on a regular basis, a question that directs the respondent to retrieve the rule, and apply the rule to the time frame of interest, and then probes to elicit exceptions to the rule may be a good strategy for eliciting a numeric response.
Current versus Retrospective Reports. Current status most often is easier to report, with respect to cognitive difficulty, than retrospective status, so it is often useful to consider beginning questions concerning current status. Information retrieved as part of the reporting of current status also will facilitate retrieval of retrospective information.