Tips for Avoiding Respondent Bias

Welcome to the another installment of FluidSurveys’s discussion on error and bias. This article will be exploring one of the most common forms of response bias, namely respondent bias. If you are unfamiliar with the other types of response bias, like researcher bias and survey bias, you may want to check them out before reading on. Otherwise, we are ready to take a look at respondent bias and how it can be avoided!

What is Respondent Bias?

Respondent bias is comprised of any error in a study that is a result of participants’ inability or unwillingness to provide accurate or honest answers to a survey. Though the inability to answer a question accurately and the unwillingness to respond honestly fall under the same category of error, these two forms of respondent bias are created for different reasons and are very particular in nature. For this reason, both inability to answer questions accurately and unwillingness to respond honestly should be explored separately from one another. With this in mind, let’s analyse these problems and discuss various ways to avoid each in our online survey research!

Inability to Answer Correctly

Frequently, respondents will be unable to answer questions 100% accurately. This could be due to various reasons, but most often responds give inaccurate responses due to unfamiliarity, respondent fatigue, faulty recall, question format, and question context.

Acknowledging this, researchers must always stay vigilant in making their questions clear and to the point. But even the best worded and well thought out questions are not bullet proof to inaccurate answers. That is why it is imperative that every question has an opt-out choice. This is usually in the form of a “Don’t Know,” “Not Sure” or “Undecided.” Not only will adding the opt-out choice eliminate a lot of inaccurate answers from your study, but it will also provide you with valuable information. You can learn how many people have not made up their mind or are uneducated on a topic. (Tip: Opt-out choices should not be confused or replaced with a neutral option, as neutral depicts a place in a scale while an opt-out omits a respondent’s score.)

Although very useful, adding an opt-out choice in all questions will eliminate only respondents who are conscience of their lack of knowledge to answer correctly. Many enthusiastic respondents are willing to provide a guess as their answer in order to “help” the study, whereas others are simply unaware of their ignorance on the survey’s topic. These participants will be a major source of bias in your information regardless of added in opt-out choices. For this reason, several strategies have been developed to ensure for the most accurate responses.

Of course, probably the most effective way to ensure you only receive respondents with the ability to answer your questions correctly is through proper screening questions. Screening questions are often used to eliminate respondents based on their demographic, but can also be used based on a respondent’s credentials or knowledge. For example, if you are asking about a household’s grocery shopping expenses, a great screening question would be “Are you a primary grocery shopper in your household?” If they answer “yes” then they should be able to answer your questions accurately, if they answered no they will be terminated from the survey.

Unwillingness to Provide Honest Answers

Respondent bias created by the unwillingness to provide honest answers stems from the participant’s natural desire to provide socially acceptable answers in order to avoid embarrassment or please the organization conducting the study. This phenomenon is widely known as social desirability bias.

The first step to countering this type of respondent bias is for a researcher to understand what types of questions increase the likelihood of social desirability. As previously mentioned social desirability occurs when the respondent believes that their answer could have a negative or positive impact on their image in the eyes of the researcher. That being said, most social desirability bias can be found in questions touching on the ways of thinking and acting that have ethical significance in society.

The most obvious of examples would be any question concerning a person’s relationship with the law. This social desirability bias is further intensified if the organization conducting the survey is a government body or authority in the community. The fear of repercussions, however justified, will lead many respondents to falsify their answers.

Other normal instances of social desirability stem from conforming to social norms. Some examples of subjects considered more sensitive would include consumption of drugs and alcohol, monetary income, and sexual behaviour. It is important for researchers to remain tactful and nonjudgmental in tone when writing questions of this nature. This will help the respondent feel more comfortable giving honest answers.

This Concludes our Discussion on Bias

I hope everyone enjoyed our in depth look at all the different types of bias found in online survey research. Here at FluidSurveys, we are always trying to help create an easier online research experience. If you have any questions or comments about bias in surveys, please let us know!

FluidSurveys Presents

Free Survey Q&A

Join our survey & research expert Rick Penwarden as he answers all of your questions every Wednesday at 1PM EST!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *