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Measurement bias in self-reports of offending: a systematic review of experiments

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Abstract

Objectives

Self-reported offending is one of the primary measurement methods in criminology. In this article, we aimed to systematically review the experimental evidence regarding measurement bias in self-reports of offending.

Methods

We carried out a systematic search for studies that (a) included a measure of offending, (b) compared self-reported data on offending between different methods, and (c) used an experimental design. Effect sizes were used to summarize the results.

Results

The 21 pooled experiments provided evidence regarding 18 different types of measurement manipulations which were grouped into three categories, i.e., Modes of administration, Procedures of data collection, and Questionnaire design. An analysis of the effect sizes for each experimental manipulation revealed, on the one hand, that self-reports are reliable across several ways of collecting data and, on the other hand, self-reports are influenced by a wide array of biasing factors. Within these measurement biases, we found that participants’ reports of offending are influenced by modes of administration, characteristics of the interviewer, anonymity, setting, bogus pipeline, response format, and size of the questionnaire.

Conclusions

This review provides evidence that allows us to better understand and improve crime measurements. However, many of the experiments presented in this review are not replicated and additional research is needed to test further aspects of how asking questions may impact participants’ answers.

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Notes

  1. “Item count technique” or “Unmatched count technique” are methods to reduce response bias, in which participants are randomly divided into at least two groups. The control group receives a list of questions without the sensitive item while the experimental group receives the same questions including the sensitive item. The prevalence estimate is calculated by the subtraction of the mean sum of the control group from the mean sum of the experimental group (Wolter and Laier 2014).

  2. “Random response technique” is a method to reduce response bias, in which participants are presented with a pair of questions, one sensitive and one innocuous. Participants use a randomization device, such as a dice or a coin, to either give a predetermined answer (e.g., yes or no) or to answer the sensitive question truthfully. A prevalence estimation is possible from knowing the probability of the predetermined outcome (Wolter and Preisendörfer 2013).

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Funding

This study was conducted at the Psychology Research Centre (PSI/01662), School of Psychology, University of Minho, and supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology and the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education (UID/PSI/01662/2019), through the national funds (PIDDAC).

The first author was supported by a doctoral grant from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT - SFRH/BD/122919/2016).

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Correspondence to Hugo S. Gomes.

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Gomes, H.S., Farrington, D.P., Maia, Â. et al. Measurement bias in self-reports of offending: a systematic review of experiments. J Exp Criminol 15, 313–339 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-019-09379-w

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