May 18, 2010

Why do many of the questions on your quizzes begin with the phrase: “Do you happen to know….?”

Q. Why do many of the questions on your quizzes begin with the phrase: “Do you happen to know….?” Strictly speaking, the correct answer to a question phrased that way is either YES or NO. All of the multiple choice options are not correct responses in these cases as they would be if the questions were posed directly, e.g., What is the national unemployment rate? How many votes are needed to break a filibuster? etc.

While the way these questions are constructed is formally incorrect, we do this intentionally. First, it is important to remember that our online interactive news quiz is a companion to a national telephone survey the Pew Research Center conducts to test the political knowledge of Americans. To get an accurate estimate of political knowledge when testing the public over the telephone, we must make it clear to respondents that they have the option to say that they do not know an answer to a question.

We use this language to emphasize that it’s perfectly legitimate if a respondent doesn’t “happen to know” the answer. Our research tends to find that the share of Americans who closely track political issues is relatively small. For the rest, some or most of our “quiz” questions are about topics they may never have heard about, and we want to make it clear that not knowing the answer to the question is fine. In fact, when asked if they “happen to know” something, many people simply respond “No” and we take them at their word and move on to the next question. If a more knowledgeable survey respondent answers the question literally and says “Yes, I do know that,” our interviewers probe by asking which of the options is the correct answer.

Another approach to reducing the pressure on people when asking factual questions is to offer “or don’t you know” as an option among the possible answers. In other words, one might ask: “Is the national unemployment rate closer to 5%, 10%, 15%, 20% or don’t you know?” The concern here, however, is that this question could seriously understate public knowledge, because someone who is pretty sure unemployment is close to 10% but is not absolutely certain of it might choose the “don’t know” option because, literally, they don’t know the answer.

Overall, we want to encourage people who think they know the answer to offer their response, and at the same time reassure people who really don’t know that it’s perfectly fine to say so. As you go through the quiz on the website, you will see that we do not structure every question this way. We attempt to mix in different opening language when conducting the survey on the phone to make the language less repetitive, and to offer an occasional reminder, in as few words as possible, that it’s OK if you don’t know the answer to every question.

Michael Dimock, Associate Director, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press