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What is a double-barreled question?

double-barreled question, also known as a compound question, a double-ended question, or a double-direct question, is a question that touches upon two or more different issues. However, it only allows for a single answer.

Essentially, a double-barreled question makes the mistake of combining what should be two questions into one.

An example of a double-barreled question in surveys

The following are examples of double-barreled questions:

How satisfied are you with your work environment and compensation?
In this example, a respondent could potentially be satisfied with her work environment but feel she is underpaid. Or, she may be satisfied with her paycheck, but hate her workplace. So how should she answer this question? And how should you interpret her answer? What did she truly intend to say?

Is this video clear and interesting?
In this example, clear and interesting are both positive attributes. However, the two attributes are not interchangeable. The video might be clear but dull at the same time. Or it might be interesting to watch but not make sense. So, should survey respondents say yes? Some might think so, others won’t, but almost assuredly, not everyone will answer this question in the same manner.

What’s the problem with double-barreled questions?

The problem with double-barreled questions is that they lead to confusion. Respondents are confused because they’ve been asked two questions, but aren’t sure which one to answer. Then, when it comes time to analyze the responses, survey creators are confused by the results. Because you can’t be sure which question the respondents answered, you also can’t be sure exactly what is being measured.

Sometimes survey creators ask a double-barreled question in order to make their surveys shorter. While this is well-intentioned, asking double-barreled questions returns inaccurate or unreliable results, leading to measurement error. This, in turn, makes the survey a waste of time and effort. Worse, if you don’t realize the results are skewed, the survey could lead you to make unwise business decisions, such as changing something that didn’t need to be changed or focusing on an area that isn’t the most pressing problem.

How to avoid double-barreled questions

Double-barreled questions are one of the most common questionnaire design mistakes, but also probably the easiest to fix. A double-barreled question can be corrected by by separating the combined question into distinct questions.

Double-barreled question:
How satisfied are you with your work environment and compensation?
Separated questions:
How satisfied are you with your work environment?
How satisfied are you with your compensation?

Double-barreled question:
Is the video clear and interesting?
Separated questions:
Is the video clear?
Is the video interesting?

A shorthand way to identify double-barreled question is carefully examining the use of the word and. Though this is not a fool-proof test (the use of and does not always indicate a double-barreled question), it is a good watchword to double-check yourself.

Additionally, another way to correct a double-barreled question is to ask follow-up questions. For example, if you ask, “Is the video clear?” and the respondent answers affirmatively, you could then follow up by asking whether it was also interesting.