Serial and Survey Methodology

serialLike everyone else I know, I got a little obsessed with Serial at the end of last year. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Serial is a podcast spun off of This American Life. It tells the true story of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend when he was just 17 and has been incarcerated since 1999– despite a lot of holes in the prosecution’s case.

When he was questioned 6 weeks after the murder, Adnan claimed that he didn’t remember where he was that afternoon, so the defense wasn’t able to establish a very strong alibi for him. I really think that if a survey methodologist instead of a cop had asked him, we could have gotten some richer information.

He insists that that day was just a very ordinary day, and besides, he was high for much of the time. Events that are not fully encoded (because you’re stoned, maybe) and those that are not particularly salient (because they’re so repetitive) are harder to recall– that’s why good survey designers have a slew of techniques to increase recall:

  • Cued recall (asking closed-ended questions or providing examples within a question stem”). Instead of just saying, “Where were you on January 13?” I would start with a question like, “On January 13, did you visit any of the following places? A library, a mall, a store…”
  • Using external records, like receipts, calendars, returned schoolwork, or anything that could trigger recall. (Admittedly, this was probably harder in 1999, when cash was more prevalent and we didn’t keep online records of absolutely everything.)
  • Event history calendars: In this technique, the respondent goes through the entire time period of interest (in this case, a day) and, while looking at a physical calendar, reconstructs their time. I’ve had a lot of success doing this when interviewing addicts about their drug use.

I know that police interviewing is different from survey administration (!!), and I’m not saying any of these approaches are the “be all and end all” of recall– just that I wonder if they were considered, given that recall is such a critical piece of this case.

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