Positive vs. negative: The impact of question polarity in voting advice applications

N. Kamoen, B. Holleman, A.P.M. Krouwel, J. van de Pol, C. de Vreese

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Online Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) are survey-like instruments that help citizens to shape their political preferences and compare them with those of political parties. Especially in multi-party democracies, their increasing popularity indicates that VAAs play an important role in opinion formation for citizens, as well as in the public debate prior to elections. Hence, the objectivity and transparency of VAAs are crucial. In the design of VAAs, many choices have to be made. Extant research in survey methodology shows that the seemingly arbitrary choice to word questions positively (e.g., 'The city council should allow cars into the city centre') or negatively ('The city council should ban cars from the city centre') systematically affects the answers. This asymmetry in answers is in line with work on negativity bias in other areas of linguistics and psychology. Building on these findings, this study investigated whether question polarity also affects the answers to VAA statements. In a field experiment (N = 31,112) during the Dutch municipal elections we analysed the effects of polarity for 16 out of 30 VAA statements with a large variety of linguistic contrasts. Analyses show a significant effect of question wording for questions containing a wide range of implicit negations (such as 'forbid' vs. 'allow'), as well as for questions with explicit negations (e.g., 'not'). These effects of question polarity are found especially for VAA users with lower levels of political sophistication. As these citizens are an important target group for Voting Advice Applications, this stresses the need for VAA builders to be sensitive to wording choices when designing VAAs. This study is the first to show such consistent wording effects not only for political attitude questions with implicit negations in VAAs, but also for political questions containing explicit negations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Number of pages17
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume11
Issue number10
Early online date10 Oct 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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