Decomposition Can Harm the Accuracy of Behavioural Frequency Reports

Robert F. Belli, Norbert Schwarz, Eleanor Singer, Jennifer Talarico

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

29 Scopus citations


In survey research, the use of decomposition can lead to pronounced reporting errors as seen by overreporting and overall reporting error. A total of 87 subjects answered either decomposed or undecomposed questions concerning telephone calls made by them while at work. The questionnaire conditions varied the length of the reference period (1 week or 6 months), and the type of call (local or long-distance). Decomposition conditions introduced either spatial or temporal cues. In all comparisons, decomposed questions increased overreporting bias relative to undecomposed questions. In addition, undecomposed questions with a 1-week reference period led to increased overreporting bias in comparison to undecomposed/ 6-month questions. Results are consistent with a category split estimation model in which smaller categories are predicted to lead to overreporting, and larger categories to underreporting. Decomposition is not recommended for gaining retrospective reports of nondistinctive, frequent events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-308
Number of pages14
JournalApplied Cognitive Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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