What Is a Double-Barrelled Question?

A double-barrelled question forces respondents to provide a single answer to two or more separate issues. Presenting multiple topics at the same time, even inadvertently, can be a problem in survey research as it makes it harder for respondents to give a meaningful answer.

Example: Double-barrelled question
In a customer satisfaction survey, you encounter the following Likert scale question:

‘How useful do you find our help center topics and our email support center?’

  • Extremely useful
  • Useful
  • Neutral
  • Somewhat useful
  • Not useful at all

Suppose that you did find the help center topics useful, but the email support center was rather slow and didn’t really help you solve your issue. This question doesn’t allow you to rate the two separately.

As a result, the question does not capture the constructs you are trying to measure, potentially leading to biased research results and confusion. Double-barrelled questions are also called compound or double direct questions.

What is a double-barrelled question?

A double-barrelled question asks about two topics at once but only allows one response.

The word ‘and’ can be a red flag indicating a double-barrelled question. This type of question usually arises in questionnaires measuring attitudes, such as opinion polls or customer satisfaction surveys.

The problem with double-barrelled questions is that they can confuse participants and add to the complexity of the survey. When respondents encounter questions like this, they must evaluate two topics but only come up with a single answer. This can be difficult, if not impossible.

In the previous example, respondents might:

  • Feel forced to choose which issue to address. In this case, researchers won’t be able to tell whether the respondents evaluated the help center topics or the email support center.
  • Choose the middle, or average, option. If a respondent finds the help center topics useful but the email support center not useful, this might lead them to rate their experience as neutral or average. However, such a response does not offer any valuable insights to the researchers.
  • Skip the question altogether. If none of the choices accurately represent their true response, the respondent may simply move to the next question, leaving this one blank.

In all of these scenarios, respondents expend time and mental effort, and researchers ultimately obtain unreliable results (or even no results at all.)

Note
Sometimes researchers ask a double-barrelled question in an attempt to make the survey shorter. Although this is well-intentioned, doing so can lead to inaccurate results measurement error. In the previous example, if respondents can’t give feedback on the poor performance of the email support center, researchers (and subsequently managers) will not know what to improve.

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Double-barrelled question example

A double-barrelled question is one of the most common pitfalls in survey research.

Example: Double-barrelled question and customer feedback
After dining at a restaurant, you are asked to complete a survey via their app. One of the questions is, ‘Do you agree with the following statement: The food is delicious and the service is great in this restaurant’. The answer options given are ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’.

This is a double-barrelled question. It consists of two topics: the quality of the food, and the level of service. Combining them into one makes it unclear what exactly is being measured. If your answer is ‘agree’, there is no way to tell whether you agree with just one part or both parts of the statement.

Perhaps you do feel like answering ‘agree’ for both or ‘disagree’ for both. Alternatively, you might want to answer that the food was delicious, but the service was not great.

In this case, the double-barrelled question makes it impossible for you to give a response that accurately mirrors your opinion. This renders the information collected from such questions useless. A better strategy would be to break the double-barrelled question into two separate questions.

Double-barrelled questions are confusing for both researchers and respondents, and they should be avoided.

How to avoid double-barrelled questions

The best way to avoid double-barrelled questions is to ensure that each question in your survey addresses only one issue. For example, instead of asking:

  • ‘Is this app useful and interesting?’  Yes/No

You should break it up into two separate questions:

  • ‘Is this app useful?’   Yes/No
  • ‘Is this app interesting?’   Yes/No

If you need more information, you can always follow up with an open-ended question. This may allow you to better grasp the respondent’s perspective. Using the example above, after asking about the app, you might ask something like:

  • In what way was the app useful to you?
  • In what way was the app not useful to you?
  • What did you find most interesting about the app?
  • What did you find least interesting about the app?

Although including follow-up questions will make your survey a bit longer, doing so is a more efficient use of respondents’ time. They will be able to give more meaningful answers, and you will be able to collect more useful information.

Other types of survey question errors

A double-barrelled question is a common error found in survey research. However, it’s not the only type. Here are a few more mistakes you want to avoid:

  • Leading questions suggest a particular response. For example, the question ‘What did you think of our delicious buffet?’ assumes that the buffet was delicious, suggesting that a positive answer is appropriate. Instead, it’s best to use neutral statements or questions.
  • Ambiguous questions are too broad, and can be interpreted differently by different people. Asking ‘How do you feel about your purchase?’ places the burden of deciphering what ‘feel’ might mean in this context onto respondents. A better approach would be to ask ‘How satisfied are you with your purchase?’ and provide options ranging from extremely satisfied to extremely unsatisfied.
  • Double negatives use two negative words in the same question or statement. For example: ‘Do you oppose the government not investing in defense?’ This is confusing for respondents, and can also cause them to misinterpret the question.
  • Complex questions, such as ‘If you had to get to work using a bicycle, bus, train, car, or on foot, which would you choose? Consider annual precipitation, your transportation budget, and carpooling opportunities in your area’. The word ‘if’ is often a red flag indicating that a questionnaire item is too complex.
  • Using jargon or terms that might be easily misunderstood. For example, the statement ‘Companies have the responsibility to undertake human rights due diligence’ is not easy to understand if one doesn’t know what the term ‘due diligence’ means. Replace jargon with everyday language, such as ‘Companies should conduct research in order to identify and prevent human rights violations’.
  • Question order bias means that questions appearing earlier in a survey might influence how respondents interpret and answer the questions that follow. It is a type of response bias, and you can avoid it by asking general questions before specific ones.

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Frequently asked questions

Why should you avoid double-barrelled questions?

Double-barrelled questions are problematic because they force respondents to evaluate two separate topics in a single answer. If respondents have a different opinion about each of these topics, it is impossible to indicate that. As a result, double-barrelled questions waste respondents’ time and return inaccurate data.

How can I fix a double-barrelled question?

The best way to fix a double-barrelled question is to break it up into two separate questions. For example, instead of asking ‘How satisfied are you with the variety and quality of the food offered in the cafeteria over the past academic year?’, you should ask two questions:

  • ‘How satisfied are you with the variety of the food in the cafeteria over the past academic year?’
  • ‘How satisfied are you with the quality of the food in the cafeteria over the past academic year?’
What is a compound question?

A compound question is another term for a double-barrelled question, especially in a legal context. A compound question occurs when two or more questions are combined into one. For example, in a cross-examination, a lawyer might ask a suspect: ‘As you approached the intersection, did you look down, check your phone, and then look up and for the first time notice the oncoming car?’ This type of question can mislead or confuse the person answering the question, and should be avoided.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, January 13). What Is a Double-Barrelled Question?. Scribbr. Retrieved 22 February 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/research-methods/asking-double-barreled-questions/

Sources

Menold, Natalja. (2020). Double Barreled Questions: An Analysis of the Similarity of Elements and Effects on Measurement Quality. Journal of Official Statistics. 36. 855-886. 10.2478/jos-2020-0041.

Jiang, P., Muppalla, K., Wei, Q., Gopal, C., & Wang, C. (2022). Double-Barreled Question Detection at Momentive [Unpublished manuscript]. Retrieved January 8, 2023 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/359080034_Double-Barreled_Question_Detection_at_Momentive

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.