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Leading and Loaded Questions: How to Avoid Telling Your Users What to Think

Bias can sneak up in the most unexpected ways. Everyone has their own unique preferences and opinions, and as much as we might not want them to, those can leak into our professional lives. Poorly constructed survey questions are an example of how personal or professional bias can flow into our work, and sometimes, this can alter the outcome of a form or survey and elicit inaccurate results.

What we’re talking about here is leading and loaded questions. If you’re not aware of your own preconceived notions as you create web forms and customer surveys, these questions could influence your users into filling out answers that don’t accurately reflect their own beliefs. Tainted, half-true data isn’t helpful for you or the people you’re sharing it with.

In this post, we’ll introduce the importance of recognizing leading and loaded questions, discuss how you can avoid these setups, and provide tips for optimizing clear forms that produce accurate user data.

Leading vs. loaded questions

What exactly are leading and loaded questions? There are several definitions of these types of questions, but here’s one way to understand the difference between the two.

Leading questions are intended to lead people to answer questions in a specific way based on how these questions are phrased. Often they contain information that the form creator wants to confirm rather than creating a question that tries to achieve a true, unfiltered answer.

Leading question examples

Here’s a real-life example of a leading question in an interview setting. If an employer at a restaurant chain asks the interviewee, “Our food is the best on the market, isn’t it?” the employer likely expects a positive or affirming answer. The interviewee can’t realistically object without sounding like they’re in direct opposition to the beliefs of the employer. 

Although this is a basic conversational example, the same kind of bias can occur in web forms, surveys, or feedback instruments. Whenever the form or survey creator presupposes an answer, it places the respondent in an awkward spot while obligating them to answer a certain way.

In addition to leading, form questions can be flawed in other ways, too. This happens when:

  • The question really contains two questions, each of which could have a different answer from the same person. 
  • The construction of the question forces respondents to answer yes to both statements or no to both statements.
  • The question implies that one response is morally or socially superior to the alternative response. This can skew results and force respondents to adjust their own beliefs.

Another example of a leading question could be asking something like “Do you love our amazing support team?” With this kind of phrasing, it feels harsh to answer anything other than yes. Instead, ask something along the lines of “How would you rate the performance of our support team on a scale of 1 to 10?” You can do this using a Rikert scale or other question layout

Loaded questions

Loaded questions are similar to leading questions in that they subtly (or not so subtly) push the user toward a particular response. The defining feature of this question is that an assumption about the respondent is included implicitly within the question.

Loaded questions can seem harmless at a first glance, and they’re a kind of logical fallacy that appears everywhere from the media to everyday conversations. One example of a loaded question in today’s society could be focused on a person’s political stance. For instance, a questionnaire might ask, “Do you really intend to vote for this controversial presidential candidate?”

In this question, the survey creator is assuming:

  • The person’s voting choice is potentially off-base or corrupt
  • The person likes supporting controversial candidates for office
  • There is something implicitly wrong about someone else’s voting choice

Loaded questions can be asked about many different things in society: a product, a person, or a business. 

From a product angle, the problem with loaded questions is that they assume that your user loves whatever product you’re asking them about. Maybe all you’re looking for in these cases is positive answers, but if you want honest feedback and transparent data, you must phrase each question without preconceived ideas.

Differences in leading and loaded questions

Leading and loaded questions have small differences, but it’s important to remember that they are both ways to confuse, mislead, or influence users into making a particular selection. 

Sometimes they’re created deliberately, other times they’re unintentional. In nearly all cases, it’s possible to modify both leading and loaded questions to present better options to users and get more accurate results in return.

Words to avoid

Occasionally, the problem with a question is that it contains loaded words—words overcharged with negative or positive emotion or words that imply a bias toward the question. 

According to FluidSurveys, using absolute words puts your users in a difficult position, forcing them to think in black and white terms. Likewise, using strong, emotionally charged verbs and adjectives can influence the way your users think about an issue. In turn, this changes the way that respondents answer questions when compared to scenarios in which the individual has the freedom to answer without fear of judgment or critique. 

How to avoid flawed and biased questions in forms

When you’re creating any kind of form, take these steps to make sure you’re not using leading or loaded questions and that you’re respecting your respondents.

  • Step 1: Look at your questions and ask yourself if there’s a particular way you want a question to be answered or if there’s a certain type of response you’re expecting. Reword questions to focus on all options; don’t just ask readers to confirm something you believe to be true.
  • Step 2: Look at the words you’re using. Are you describing something in a biased way? Remove biased language and describe options using clear, to-the-point phrasing. Don’t suggest in any way that one response is better than another.
  • Step 3: Examine whether the questions you’re asking require users to give an answer that doesn’t completely represent their response. Separate out any grouped questions and clarify any user characteristics before you make an assumption within a question.

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As an organization, it is your responsibility to build forms and surveys that are fair, honest, and respectful to your target audience. By following the guidelines in this blog post, you’ll be able to create forms with words that count, rather than unintentionally swaying your respondents to answer with inaccurate responses. 

Ready to take your learning a step further? Learn how to make a great first impression in all of your web forms by downloading our Ultimate Guide to Web Form Design eBook today!

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