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This is the third post in my series of real life examples of the response process model in action.

Encode –>Comprehend –> Retrieve –> Map –> Report

If respondents know what happened and understand what is being asked of them, you’re already on the right track. This brings us to stage 3: Retrieval. Respondents have to remember their experience in order to accurately answer a question.

Ideally, a question will tax a respondent’s memory as little as possible.  I’ve had clients propose questions that they themselves probably couldn’t answer—usually due to a breakdown at the retrieval stage. Some memorable examples:

How many times have you bought toothpaste in the past year?

It’s unlikely that someone would recall every purchase of a mundane item. For routine or high-frequency purchases, a shorter time frame (the past week or the past month) can usually get more accuracy.

How were you feeling the last time you drove a car?

Unless the experience stood out for a respondent in some way, they’re not likely to remember. People are likely to resort to reporting on their habits (“Well, I usually feel stressed when I drive”) as this is less work than recreating the experience: (“The last time I was driving was last night when I left work…traffic was light so I was relaxed, not stressed like I usually am.”)

What was your typical lunch when you were 12 years old?

Depending on who your respondents are, this could work—but the farther you get from the time period in question, the more memories fade.  Unless you are asking about a significant event, “historical” recall is often a place to consider more sophisticated techniques. One of my favorite techniques is event history calendars, where respondents are probed to sketch out (often on a physical calendar) important events in their past to help them to “revisit” the time period in question.

Some recommendations to improve recall accuracy:

1. Ask about recent events

2. Ask about major events

3. Put events in context