Battling response bias: How to design a truly neutral survey

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Posted Jun 15, 2022
Trevor Brown

They say that the customer is always right, but they don’t say that the customer is always accurate. Unfortunately, we humans tend to be easily influenced. We don’t always respond truthfully or authentically to every question because we naturally use our environment to determine our response to situations. This tendency negatively impacts research and makes it impossible to extract actionable insights from data unless you structure your survey to avoid it. 

Today, we will break down what response bias is regarding survey research methodologies and how you can use best practices to avoid it. This will ensure that your research is always high-quality and can be effectively used to drive critical decision-making. To implement these tips, we recommend using an agile research platform such as the one aytm provides so you can create your own bias-free surveys quickly and easily and then send them to our diverse panel of over 100 million consumers. 

What is response bias?

Response bias refers to participants' wide range of tendencies to respond inaccurately or falsely to questions. It’s often used to describe the conditions that can influence survey responses and lead to bias, negatively impacting data quality. This vulnerability can affect any research but is most prevalent in self-reported data collection methods. Surveys and questionnaires are two of the most common self-report research methods. These are also some of the most valuable and effective strategies for taking the pulse of any target market. The answer is not to abandon self-reporting methods but to ensure that your surveys are designed to limit (as much as possible) response bias. 

Response bias is not always intentional dishonesty, but it may be. You cannot control whether or not participants tell the truth, but you can ensure that our questions are worded so that they are the least likely to cause bias in respondents. We tend to formulate answers to questions based more on external factors than what we honestly feel. To get to the consumer's true feelings, you need to keep your surveys as neutral as possible. 

There are many different types of response bias that you need to be aware of so that they do not seep into your survey questions. For example, a leading question is one example of a biased question structure. In this case, a leading question influences the respondent to provide a specific answer to the question. This can cause the preferences of the survey author to seep into and impact the actual data, resulting in nothing more than a feedback loop. One way to avoid leading questions is to frame your questions to expect a more open-ended response. Now, let’s explore four other types of response bias to prevent. 

Four types of response bias

Although there are certainly more than just four response bias types, we have focused on just the most common types for brevity. It would help to consider these response bias types when crafting your questionnaire or survey.

1. Social Desirability Bias

Social desirability bias is a term that refers to the tendency of people to respond with the answer that they think is most socially acceptable, regardless of whether or not they genuinely believe their answer. This impulse is most common with survey questions that touch on sensitive issues that we have all been conditioned to respond to in a certain way. 

If a particular question references a common bad habit, respondents are more likely to reply in the negative rather than admit to the bad habit, because of the social stigma against it. It’s essential to be aware of Social Desirability Bias because it can cause huge swings in the data and dramatically reduce its usability if you do not avoid it. How society views an issue can skew responses to inflate or under-inflate the actual numbers. Fortunately, there are specific ways to combat social desirability bias in your surveys. 

2. Demand Characteristics

Sometimes, simply being part of a study can influence respondents to respond inaccurately. This is called Demand Bias and happens for a variety of reasons. Participants tend to try to identify the author of the survey and what their purpose may be. Then, they tend to respond to the questions in a way they think supports that goal instead of sharing what they actually think. The styling of the survey itself, the way the survey you introduce the survey to the respondent (email or in-person), and the wording of questions can induce this bias. It’s called Demand Bias because research has demonstrated that even the subtlest design features of a survey (including its title) can place a subconscious demand on the participant to respond accordingly.  

3. Acquiescence Bias

With Acquiescence Bias, survey data from respondents becomes useless because it consists of entirely affirmative statements. In this case, the survey might have questions like: “Do you like to watch horror movies?” and other questions like, “Do you hate jumpscares?” 

If the participant says yes to both, the responses show contradictory answers that do not result in meaningful data. This kind of yes-bias can occur for various reasons, but many believe that it results from respondents constantly examining their own diverse experiences and always being able to find something that supports an affirmative response. Some have also described this as an extreme example of Social Desirability Bias, with participants responding to every question in a way that they think fits best with society’s norms. 

4. Extreme Responding

Sometimes, people respond to questions and voice stronger opinions than their true feelings. In this case, participants are exhibiting extreme responding bias. Satisfaction surveys are the most common kind of surveys where you see this type of bias. There’s a tendency to give a business a 5 out of 5 or a 0 out of 5 no matter what you truly feel about your experience. Sometimes a question can be worded to specifically elicit an extreme response. A question like this would appeal to a person’s desire to please and can lead the person to respond more extremely. 

How to design surveys to avoid response bias

When it comes to online surveys, wording matters; it matters a lot. It is one of the most effective ways to avoid response bias and ensure that your responses can yield valuable data. One of the best ways to prevent survey bias is to ensure that your questions are specific and use everyday language. You’ll also want to avoid writing your questions to reveal your goals, desires, or intentions for this survey. 

You should also avoid revealing the survey's sponsor until the appropriate time. If you disclose the name of the brand behind the survey, you could bias the respondents as well. There are also hazards to avoid when designing your survey questions and answers. One example of a hazard is avoiding implicit alternatives in your questions. Making the implied alternative explicit can end up making the data more accurate. 

Eliminate response bias in your own surveys

With aytm, you can implement the best survey design practices without sacrificing survey customization or quality. Our agile research solution allows you to find your target market in minutes by selecting a few characteristics. We then send your customized questions to your target segment of our global panel, and you can have actionable insights in just a few days. 

If you want to learn more about creating your own surveys, check out our free DIY ebook. You can sign up for a FREE account and get started with our platform today!

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