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Science. 1987 Apr 10;236(4798):157-61.

Answering autobiographical questions: the impact of memory and inference on surveys.


Survey questions often probe respondents for quantitative facts about events in their past: "During the last 2 weeks, on days when you drank liquor, about how many drinks did you have?" "During the past 12 months, how many visits did you make to a dentist?" "When did you last work at a full-time job?" are all examples from national surveys. Although questions like these make an implicit demand to remember and enumerate specific autobiographical episodes, respondents frequently have trouble complying because of limits on their ability to recall. In these situations, respondents resort to inferences that use partial information from memory to construct a numeric answer. Results from cognitive psychology can be useful in understanding and investigating these phenomena. In particular, cognitive research can help in identifying situations that inhibit or facilitate recall and can reveal inferences that affect the accuracy of respondents' answers.

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