Do questionnaires reflect their purported cognitive functions?

Cognition. 2020 Feb:195:104114. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2019.104114. Epub 2019 Dec 20.


Questionnaires are used widely across psychology and permit valuable insights into a person's thoughts and beliefs, which are difficult to derive from task performance measures alone. Given their importance and widespread use, it is vital that questionnaires map onto the cognitive functions they purport to reflect. However, where performance on naturalistic tasks such as imagination, autobiographical memory, future thinking and navigation is concerned, there is a dearth of knowledge about the relationships between task performance and questionnaire measures. Questionnaires are also typically designed to probe a specific aspect of cognition, when instead researchers sometimes want to obtain a broad profile of a participant. To the best of our knowledge, no questionnaire exists that asks simple single questions about a wide range of cognitive functions. To address these gaps in the literature, we recruited a large sample of participants (n=217), all of whom completed a battery of widely used questionnaires and performed naturalistic tasks involving imagination, autobiographical memory, future thinking and navigation. We also devised a questionnaire that comprised simple single questions about the cognitive functions of interest. There were four main findings. First, imagination and navigation questionnaires reflected performance on their related tasks. Second, memory questionnaires were associated with autobiographical memory vividness and not internal (episodic) details. Third, imagery questionnaires were more associated with autobiographical memory vividness and future thinking than the questionnaires purporting to reflect these functions. Finally, initial exploratory analyses suggested that a broad profile of information can be obtained efficiently using a small number of simple single questions, and these modelled task performance comparably to established questionnaires in young, healthy adults. Overall, while some questionnaires can act as proxies for behaviour, the relationships between memory and future thinking tasks and questionnaires are more complex and require further elucidation.

Keywords: Autobiographical memory; Hippocampus; Imagination; Navigation; Questionnaires; Scene construction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Neuropsychological Tests / standards*
  • Psychometrics / standards*
  • Spatial Navigation / physiology*
  • Young Adult