Social psychologists and public opinion researchers have long been aware that attitude reports are highly context dependent (for reviews see Schuman and Presser, 1981; Sudman et al., 1996). When asked to report on their opinions, respondents can rarely retrieve a ready-for-use answer from memory. Instead, they need to form an answer on the spot, drawing on information that is accessible at that point in time. This gives rise to question order and response order effects, both of which are age sensitive.
Question order effects emerge when preceding questions bring information to mind that respondents may otherwise not consider in answering a subsequent question (see Sudman et al., 1996, for a discussion of the underlying processes). To reduce these effects, researchers often introduce buffer items to separate related questions, thus attenuating the accessibility of previously used information. The same logic suggests that age-related declines in memory function attenuate question order effects because they render it less likely that previously used information is still accessible. The available data support this prediction (Knäuper, Schwarz, Park, and Fritsch, 2003, unpublished manuscript; Schwarz and Knäuper, 2000).
One of the most robust question order effects in the survey literature was observed by Schuman and Presser (1981), who asked respondents if a pregnant woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion “if she is married and does not want any more children” (Question A) or “if there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby” (Question B). Not surprisingly, more respondents support legal abortion in response to Question B than in response to Question A. More important, support for Question A decreases when Question B is presented first: Compared to the risk of a serious birth defect, merely “not wanting any more children” appears less legitimate, reducing support for legal abortion. Secondary analyses show that this question order effect results in a difference of 19.5 percentage points for younger respondents, but decreases with age and is no longer observed for respondents aged 65 and older (Figure 1). Thus researchers arrive at different conclusions about cohort differences depending on the order in which the questions are asked. When the “no more children” question (A) is asked first, support for abortion decreases with age, suggesting that older respondents hold more conservative attitudes toward abortion. Yet no age difference can be observed when the same question is preceded by the “birth defect” question (B).
Laboratory experiments (Knäuper et al., 2003) indicate that the attenuation of question order effects among older respondents is due to age-