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Avoiding Working Memory Overload in your Surveys

Posted: Aug 22, 2014

Working Memory Overload

Today I want to discuss what Working Memory Overload is -- and how dangerous is can be in your Surveys. In short, Working Memory Overload is when your survey and/or questions puts a cognitive burden on your respondents working memory.  This working memory is considered short term and often used to process a question while formulating a response.  By the time your respondent reaches the end of the survey question they have forgotten what the start of the question said or was asking.  If you present your survey and questions in a way that is too difficult to process you will be introducing Working Memory Overload.

Working Memory Overload - Definition

Let's explore a more in-depth definition.  You have heard many times about the importance of making your questions specific and precise.  It can be easy to inject complex syntax and clauses into a question to ensure that you are precise as possible.  However where there is too much it actually damages the quality of the question.  The respondent focuses on trying to understand how the question is worded rather then actually responding to the question. As the respondent moves from the start of the question to the end, if it is too complex for them, their immediate short term memory will only remember the last few words.  The first few words in the question in essence have been ejected from their short term memory.  They were replaced by overly complex phrases and jargon that they memory is now trying to focus on. In Short, working memory overload is caused by unnecessarily complex questions that prevent the respondent from remembering and processing the entire question as a whole.

Working Memory Overload - How to Identify

Above we provided the definition for what working memory overload is.  Identifying overly complex questions can often be subjective.  What is complex to some is not complex to another.  however you have to consider the complexity from your respondents point of view.  Will they understand industry jargon.  Do they need the extra explanation tacked onto the end of the sentence.  If they don't then remove it. Another really easy way to identify potential issues with working memory overload in surveys is to evaluate the length of the question.  The key to working memory overload is that if your question gets too long, the respondent will forget what was said at the start of the question.  This can cause them to start over, reread the question and so forth.  Long questions that don't have complex jargon can also create working memory overload simply due to their length.  Look for excessively verbose phrases or unnecessary content.  Strip anything out that is not needed.

Working Memory Overload - Damage Caused

Working memory overload can cause really interesting results within your survey.  It can potentially cause a respondent to forget the initial part of your question (since it was booted out of their short term memory) and cause them to answer your question incorrectly.  In fact they may think they are answering the question one way and actually answering it in a completely opposite manner. A secondary effect the working memory overload can cause on a  survey is a loss of interest in the survey as a whole.  If a respondent gets stuck on a question because they short term memory is unable to process its meaning, they many get frustrated with the survey as a whole.  In fact they may decide to abandon the survey and move on to other things.

Working Memory Overload - How to Fix

Above we discovered that complex phrases and overly verbose questions are often the lead creators of working memory overload.  The best way to resolve these is to evaluate your choice of words.  If a word or concept is not needed to answer the question , then omit it.  If there is a more descriptive word that can replace several words, use that instead. Also don't underestimate the value of separating your survey question into several smaller questions.  This one you will have to use with discretion as each question is valuable real estate in your survey form.  However you may find that you are able to avoid working memory overload and there for get more value out of your survey if you break particularly difficult questions into multiple smaller ones.

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