Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Sensitive Questions: Drug Use, Abortions

06/01/2002

A large body of methodological evidence indicates that embarrassing or socially undesirable behaviors are misreported in surveys (e.g., Bradburn, 1983). For example, comparisons between estimates of the number of abortions based on survey data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and estimates based on data collected from abortion clinics suggest that fewer than half of all abortions are reported in the NSFG (Jones and Forrest, 1992). Similarly, comparisons of survey reports of cigarette smoking with sales figures indicates significant underreporting on the part of household respondents, with the rate of underreporting increasing over time, a finding attributed by the authors as a function of increasing social undesirability (Warner, 1978).

Although validation studies of reports of sensitive behaviors are rare, there is a growing body of empirical literature that examines reports of sensitive behaviors as a function of mode of data collection, method of data collection, question wording, and context (e.g., Tourangeau and Smith, 1996). These studies have examined the reporting of abortions, AIDS risk behaviors, use of illegal drugs, and alcohol consumption. The hypothesis for these studies is that, given the tendency to underreport sensitive or undesirable behavior, the method or combination of essential survey design features that yields the highest estimate is the "better" measurement approach.

Studies comparing self-administration to interviewer-administered questions (either face to face or telephone) indicate that self-administration of sensitive questions increases levels of reporting relative to administration of the same question by an interviewer. Increases in the level of behavior have been reported in self-administered surveys (using paper and pencil questionnaires) concerning abortions (London and Williams, 1990), alcohol consumption (Aquilino and LoSciuto, 1990), and drug use (Aquilino, 1994). Similar increases in the level of reporting sensitive behaviors have been reported when the comparisons focus on the difference between interviewer-administered questionnaires and computer-assisted self administration (CASI) questionnaires.

One of the major concerns with moving from an interviewer-administered questionnaire to self-administration is the problem of limiting participation to the literate population. Even among the literate population, the use of self-administered questionnaires presents problems with respect to following directions (e.g., skip patterns). The use of audio computer-assisted self-interviewing (ACASI) techniques circumvents both problems. The presentation of the questions in both written and auditory form (through headphones) preserves the privacy of a self-administered questionnaire without the restriction imposed by respondent literacy. The use of computers for the administration of the questionnaire eliminates two problems often seen in self-administered paper and pencil questionnaires--missing data and incorrectly followed skip patterns. A small but growing body of literature (e.g., O'Reilly et al., 1994; Tourangeau and Smith, 1996) finds that ACASI methods are acceptable to respondents and appear to improve the reporting of sensitive behaviors. Cynamon and Camburn (1992) found that using portable cassette players to administer questions (with the respondent recording answers on a paper form) also was effective in increasing reports of sensitive behaviors.

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