Editor's note: Mark A. Wheeler is principal of Wheeler Research LLC, Bryn Mawr, Pa. 

All moderators know that they should try to ask open-ended questions to avoid leading their respondents to particular answers. But in the real world of moderating, it is usually impossible to know just how much our style of questioning is influencing the responses that we’re hearing. On the basis of both research in behavioral science and from recent marketing research examples with clients, it’s clear that some small variations in the way we ask our questions are having oversized and potentially-biasing effects.

In this article, I will describe a decision-making heuristic called availability that can alter the way our respondents answer the questions that we put to them. Next will be a few examples from published research showing that how questions are framed will change our answers (and even our beliefs and intention to purchase). Then I will give a recent example with a client where we decided to change a key research question and began to hear different answers. The article will end with a discussion of how to ask questions that neutralize any potential biases.

Thought-leaders in behavioral science, particularly Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, have described a long (and still growing) list of cognitive heuristics, or shortcuts, that guide our decisions and behaviors. According to the availability heuristic, when an idea quickly comes to mind (or is brought to our attention), it seemingly becomes more important than it was before. Similarly, if we are asked to think about some action that we might take, then we go on to believe that it happened more often in the past and is more likely to happen in the future. There are lots of relevant examples in the psychology literature, with obvious implications for what we do as marketing researchers. Every time we make an idea available to our respondents, the idea itself ...