Acquiescence Bias: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How does the phrasing of a question impact how people answer? In this lesson, we'll look at acquiescence bias, including what it is, how it can influence testimony, and how to avoid it.

Acquiescence Bias

Julie is a lawyer. She became a lawyer because she wants to find the truth. When she's interviewing witnesses or cross-examining defendants, she has that goal in mind: find the truth. But lately, she's worried that the questions she's asking could keep her from getting the whole truth.

The reason Julie is worrying is because she's recently heard about acquiescence bias, also sometimes called acquiescence response bias, which occurs when people are likely to agree with a statement or answer a yes/no question with a yes. For example, if Julie asks a witness, ''Did the person you saw have on a green shirt,'' the witness is more likely to say yes than no, even if they don't remember. This doesn't mean that the witnesses are lying, only that there's a tendency to agree with people.

The acquiescence bias could happen for many reasons, including the fact that people want others to like them, and being agreeable is likeable. It could also be that the way Julie asks a question (like, ''Did the person have on a green shirt?'') could cause someone to remember incorrectly.

Whatever the case, Julie needs to know more about how the acquiescence bias works in the legal and criminal justice fields, so that she can try to avoid it. To help her out, let's look at how acquiescence bias can occur in testimony and cross-examination.

Testimony & Cross-Examination

As we've seen, Julie is really concerned about acquiescence bias. She worries because when she asks a question of a witness or defendant, the acquiescence bias might lead her to get a yes answer, regardless of what the real truth is.

If Julie was unscrupulous, she could use the acquiescence bias to her advantage. For example, she could ask lots of yes/no questions and try to get the person on the stand to give her the answers she wants. But if she really wants the truth (and she does!), Julie will want to be very careful about how she asks things.

For one thing, she'll want to ask open-ended questions. These are questions that don't have a yes or no answer. For example, Julie could ask the witness, ''What color shirt did the person you saw wear?'' This is very different from asking, ''Did the person you saw have on a green shirt?'' In the open-ended question, the witness is less likely to fall victim to acquiescence bias and just agree with her, even if they aren't sure.

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