Sensitive topics

'Sensitive' topics are not confined to explicitly illegal or embarrassing subjects but also include basic demographic items such as age or marital status. Indeed, various facts of life can carry such a prominent social and emotional loading that questions targeting them often fall prey to the respondents' 'social desirability' bias (cf. Section 1.2.2). Depending on our core values, we are likely to overreport on what we conceive as a positive aspect and underreport on a negative one.

Questionnaire designers need to be aware of this tendency and a good initial rule of thumb is that we should not ask any sensitive questions unless absolutely necessary for the project.

In Section 2.6.3,1 will discuss several item-writing strategies that might make such questions more palatable, and in Section 3.4 we will look at questionnaire administration techniques that may help to 'sell' these items. Here I would like to highlight the usefulness of an explicit statement or promise of confidentiality in overcoming possible apprehensions. Oppenheim (1992, pp. 104-105) suggests that something along the following line be displayed prominently on the front of the questionnaire:

The contents of this form are absolutely confidential. Information identifying the respondent will not be disclosed under any circumstances.

In the general instructions of a motivation questionnaire among school learners which included the appraisal of the L2 teacher and course (and was therefore particularly sensitive from the students' point of view), Gliksman, Gardner and Smythe (1982, p. 637) provided the following detailed description of how confidentiality was observed in spite of asking the students to state their names:

Your answers to any or all questions will be treated with the strictest confidence. Although we ask for your name on the cover page, we do so only because we must be able to associate your answers to this questionnaire with those of other questionnaires which you will be asked to answer. It is important for you to know, however, that before the questionnaires are examined, your questionnaire will be numbered, the same number will be put on the section containing your name, and then that section will be removed. By following a similar procedure with the other questionnaires we will be able to match the questionnaires through matching numbers and avoid having to associate your name directly with the questionnaire.

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