Bias is an unavoidable occurrence in market research (Suchman 1962) but researchers can limit its effects on survey results by understanding what causes it and taking proactive measures. By implementing effective survey design and ensuring questions are both well written and well-formatted, researchers can be more confident that respondents’ answers are more accurate and autonomous (Summers and Hammonds 1969).
In this article, we explore some of the common types of bias in survey research, and how to minimise their impact on survey results.
Acquiescence bias or ‘Yes’ bias
Acquiescence bias AKA friendliness bias occurs when a respondent feels inclined to answer a question in a positive or agreeable way. This can happen when the respondent selects options which seem “right”.
For example, in a customer satisfaction survey, the respondent may select “Very satisfied” because it is the most positive option and pleasing to the researcher. Acquiescence bias can also occur if respondents are fatigued and begin to answer questions with minimal thought. It is more prevalent in Asian cultures than in Western countries and varies by other characteristics of respondent groups (Johnson et al. 2005).
To minimise acquiescence bias, the researcher should review and adjust any questions which might elicit a favourable answer including binary response formats such as “Yes/No”, “True/False”, and “Agree/Disagree”. The dual negative-positive scale helps avoid this bias, making results more comparable across countries and subgroups.
Social desirability bias
Social desirability bias is caused by respondents who choose answers based on what they think is socially acceptable (Lindsay and Roxas 2011). This results in answers which either depict a higher number of “desirable” responses or a lower number of “undesirable” responses.
Questions about topics such as health, income, politics, and religion tend to be affected by social bias. For example, respondents might answer the question “How often do you drink alcohol?” with a lower frequency than is actually true. To reduce this form of bias, researchers should anonymise respondents and assure confidentiality, whilst using neutral and non suggestive question wording.
Respondents can be affected by habituation bias when questions are repetitive or phrased similarly. This lowers assertiveness, causing respondents to answer questions based on similar questions they have previously answered.
For example, a survey that uses the question “On a scale of 1-5, how likely would you buy this product”, is likely to suffer from habituation bias. To prevent this, researchers must differentiate question wording, and use an engaging tone to keep respondents alert.
Confirmation bias is characterised as the human tendency to seek out information that supports their pre-existing beliefs or opinions and ignore information that does not. It affects researchers during the analysis process as they may use respondent data to validate their original hypothesis but ignore any data that contradicts it.
To reduce the effects of confirmation bias, researchers must remain open-minded and consider all data when evaluating existing hypotheses whilst acknowledging it could be disproven during analysis.
Extreme response bias
Extreme response bias occurs when respondents answer a question in the extreme way, regardless of if it reflects their actual views. It is usually the result of another underlying form of bias.
For example, if a respondent is affected by acquiescence bias and selects the most “positive” answers during a customer satisfaction survey, this is also an instance of extreme response bias. Habituation bias from habit can also cause extreme response bias as respondents may choose the lowest or highest option as a habit or due to fatigue.
Researchers should ensure there is question variation, unsuggestive phrasing, and respondent anonymity to help reduce extreme response bias.
Non-response bias aka participation bias occurs when potential respondents do not participate in or complete a survey (Shultz and Luloff 2009). This can happen for a number of reasons such as respondent fatigue, privacy concerns, complex survey design, poor question wording, or if a survey is irrelevant to the respondent.
For example, if a survey asks too many open response questions, respondents may get overwhelmed and opt not to complete it. To avoid non-response bias, researchers should keep surveys as simple as possible, with clear wording and instruction and seek respondents who are relevant to the survey topic.
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