What is a double-barreled question, and how do you avoid it?

If you’re not careful about how you phrase your questions, in surveys and beyond, you may end up with inaccurate results. While you’ve probably heard general advice about what to avoid, like leading and ambiguous questions, there’s one culprit that yields skewed results and can go overlooked.

When a double-barreled question strikes, respondents often hesitate, struggling to come up with a proper response. To understand why these questions can lead to confusing results and even more confused respondents, let’s tackle what they are first.

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What is a double-barreled question, anyway?

A double-barreled question is an informal fallacy. When you ask two questions but allow for only one response, you have a double-barreled question, says Insights Association.

It frequently strikes in research, surveys, and courtrooms. While sometimes used deliberately, it can often occur entirely on accident — due to general carelessness or a lack of proofreading — and be detrimental to the accuracy of your results.

When this occurs, and the person taking the survey responds to one of the two questions, there’s no indication which they have actually answered. So if they answer “yes” to the first question but feel differently about the latter, you wouldn’t know, and you’d be unable to include the response in your results.

A good rule is to search for the grammatical conjunction “and” to pinpoint a double-barrelled question. Of course, this isn’t a foolproof test, as the word “and” can appear in a properly formulated single question.

Double-barrelled questions are just as frustrating in other situations, like court trials. They may be used to trick witnesses into admitting to something unintentionally. An example of a double-barrelled question in a court would be something like the following: As you approached the intersection, did you look down, change the radio station, then look up, and for the first time notice the oncoming car?

The attorney objected, of course, because it was a double-barrelled question.

Examples of double-barrelled questions

Double-barrelled questions are often the result of a lack of proofreading.

  • Should the government spend more money on education and less money on military funding?

You could agree with both parts of the above sentence. Or you might think that the government should spend more money on education but disagree that it should spend less on military funding. If the latter is the case, by saying “yes,” you’re really only half in agreement. That would make the results inaccurate.

Instead, you could phrase this as two separate questions:

  • Should the government spend more money on education?
  • Do you believe the government should decrease military funding?

Here’s another example:

  •  How well do you get along with your manager and coworkers?

If you were only able to respond to this question on a scale of “not well” to “great,” it would mean you’d be forced to lump your feelings about your coworkers with your feelings toward your manager. That’s fine if you feel exactly the same about both, but odds are, you don’t. You can love your coworkers and hate your boss, or vice-versa.

The better way to ask this would be in the form of two questions:

  • How well do you get along with your manager?
  • How well do you get along with your coworkers?

Double-barrelled questions are all too common with agree/disagree questions like the following example:

  • Please agree or disagree with the following statement: The subway should be free and more reliable.

With only the options to agree or disagree, you’re left unable to expand on your response. If you’re a proponent for a more reliable subway but believe that riders should still pay a fare, then you won’t know how to respond. Again, asking the questions separately is the best route:

  • Please agree or disagree with the following statement: The subway should be free.
  • Please agree or disagree with the following statement: The subway should be more reliable.

Here’s a double-barrelled question that doesn’t use “and” but limits responses to the same degree as the above examples:

  • Are you a hard-working employee who is never late?

While this would be ideal if you’re looking for an employee who is both, it may skew responses if you’re trying to determine whether a hard-working employee goes hand in hand with never being late. Phrasing the questions separately will yield more accurate results:

  • Are you a hard-working employee?
  • Are you ever late for work?

How to get the best results

If you want to avoid inaccurate results due to poorly phrased questions, you should avoid double-barreled questions, as well as leading, assumptive, or confusing questions. These tips can help:

  1. Never try to trick people into getting the responses you want. While this is probably the most unlikely option of the bunch, we did see an example above where compounded questions can be used in courtrooms to get the desired response from a witness. Clearer questions will return more authentic and truthful replies.
  2. Proofread! Have a second (or third) set of eyes look over your questions and make sure they’re all clear and straightforward.
  3. Do a trial run for your survey/research and make sure that the results make sense for the questions you asked.
This article is originally published on Mar 06, 2020, and updated on Jun 02, 2022.

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