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What is response bias and how do you avoid it?

Last updated

18 March 2023

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

Response bias can significantly impact the research results, ultimately introducing errors and inaccuracies in the data. 

If a survey or research is affected by response bias, the results may fail to accurately reflect the target population's views, opinions, or behaviors. As a result, the outcome can have serious implications for decision-making, policy development, and other applications.

Researchers can use statistical techniques to detect and correct response bias in the data analysis phase. They can also use other techniques, such as asking follow-up questions to clarify responses and ensuring the research instrument is culturally sensitive and appropriate for the target population.

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Response bias definition

Response bias refers to the tendency of survey respondents to answer questions inaccurately or in a particular direction, resulting in biased or distorted data. The bias can arise from various factors, such as:

  • Social desirability

  • Acquiescence

  • Confirmation bias

Response bias can lead to inaccurate or misleading data, making it difficult to draw reliable conclusions. It can also be challenging to detect and correct response bias, especially if it's not recognized or addressed during the study design or data collection process.

If not appropriately addressed, response bias can have significant implications for the validity and reliability of survey results and can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Types of response bias

The different types of response bias that can occur in survey research include:

1. Social desirability bias

Social desirability bias happens when survey respondents give answers they perceive as socially desirable or acceptable rather than their actual beliefs or experiences.

This can manifest in various ways, such as over-reporting socially desirable behaviors like volunteering or exercising or under-reporting socially undesirable behaviors like smoking or substance abuse. 

For example, if a survey asks respondents about their alcohol consumption, those who believe heavy drinking is socially frowned upon may underreport their drinking habits or provide responses that reflect lower consumption levels. 

Similarly, respondents may overstate their charitable giving or community involvement activities to appear more socially responsible or altruistic.

2. Non-response bias

Non-response bias occurs when a group of people selected to participate in a survey don't respond, resulting in a sample unrepresentative of the population. This bias can arise due to various reasons, such as:

  • Lack of interest or motivation to participate

  • Inability to reach or locate certain individuals

  • Feeling uncomfortable with the research topic

For example, if you’re using telephone calls to conduct a survey on political preferences, your sample will exclude people who don’t own a telephone. This may lead to a biased estimate of political preferences. 

In addition, individuals who participate less in a survey may be less likely to respond, leading to an under-representation of their perspectives.

3. Demand bias

When survey respondents provide answers they think the researcher wants to hear rather than their actual beliefs or experiences, they create demand bias. This occurs because respondents may perceive the researcher has a particular agenda or hypothesis, and they adjust their responses accordingly.

For example, if a company produces a survey about one of its products or services, respondents will likely provide positive feedback to avoid upsetting the sponsor or to improve their chances of receiving future incentives or rewards.

Alternatively, if a survey asks respondents about their political views, respondents may feel pressure to align their responses with the perceived political leanings of the researcher. 

4. Extreme response bias

Extreme response bias occurs when survey participants consistently choose the most extreme response options rather than providing moderate responses. 

For example, if a survey asks respondents to rate their satisfaction with a product or service on a scale of 1 to 10, some may consistently choose the lowest or highest possible rating rather than providing an accurate response. 

Researchers should consider using techniques such as reversing the polarity of some questions or using a response scale with an unprejudiced midpoint. 

5. Neutral responses

Neutral responses refer to survey responses where the participant selects the middle option on a response scale or chooses a response indicating a lack of opinion or knowledge on the surveyed topic. 

While using neutral responses can help avoid a forced choice and allow respondents to express their ambivalence or lack of knowledge on a particular topic, it can also result in uninformative or meaningless responses. The overuse of neutral responses can skew the distribution of responses and lead to inaccurate conclusions. 

To mitigate these biases, researchers can add a "N/A" response or an "I don't have an opinion on this topic" option. They can also create a more forced-choice option with no middle point on the scale, which can help to elicit more decisive responses. These steps can help researchers reduce the impact of response bias and improve the accuracy of their findings.

6. Acquiescence bias

A response bias in which survey respondents tend to agree with statements or questions regardless of their beliefs or attitudes is acquiescence bias. This bias can lead to inaccurate data because respondents may not provide honest or accurate answers.

Acquiescence bias can arise for several reasons. Some people may be more agreeable to avoid conflict, while others may feel pressure to provide socially desirable responses. Additionally, respondents may not fully understand the question or feel it's easier to agree than to think deeply about their response.

For example, if a survey asks respondents to rate their agreement with a series of statements on a scale of 1 to 5, a respondent who exhibits acquiescence bias may tend to select higher ratings even if they disagree with the statements. 

This act can lead to overestimating the prevalence of certain attitudes or beliefs in a population. It can also skew the results of factor analysis or other statistical techniques relying on the assumption respondents are answering truthfully.

7. Dissent bias

Dissent bias is a response bias that can arise when respondents feel the survey is biased or they are suspicious of the research intent.

Dissent bias can lead to inaccurate data because the responses provided by respondents don't reflect their true beliefs or attitudes. It can be problematic in surveys aiming to measure public opinion or attitudes toward controversial topics.

Additionally, some respondents may hold opinions that differ from those of the survey administrator or the prevailing social norms. 

8. Voluntary response bias

Voluntary response bias happens in survey research when individuals self-select themselves into a sample. This method can lead to inaccurate data because the sample may not represent the studied population.

Voluntary response bias can arise when you conduct a survey using a method that allows individuals to choose whether or not to participate. For example, a television station may ask viewers to call in with their opinions on a particular issue. In this case, the sample comprises only those individuals who choose to call in, which may not represent the broader population

9. Cognitive bias

A cognitive bias is a systematic error of deviating from rational and objective thinking. Individuals can make judgments and decisions based on subjective factors rather than objective facts or evidence. Cognitive biases can occur in various aspects of human cognition, such as memory, perception, attention, and reasoning, leading to inaccurate or illogical judgments and decisions.

There are numerous different types of cognitive biases, including: 

For example, in confirmation bias, people tend to seek out and interpret information to confirm their pre-existing beliefs while ignoring information contradicting those beliefs. The result can lead to overconfidence in the accuracy of their beliefs, preventing them from considering alternative viewpoints.

How do you get rid of response bias?

Response bias occurs when the responses given by a participant in a survey or study do not accurately reflect their true thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

Here are some methods researchers can use to reduce response bias:

1. Understand your demographic

Understanding your demographic can help minimize response bias by allowing researchers to design surveys or studies tailored to the target population's specific characteristics and experiences. This approach can increase the questions' relevance and clarity and help ensure participants can provide more accurate and honest responses.

Additionally, understanding the target population's demographic characteristics can allow researchers to identify potential sources of response bias, such as social desirability or acquiescence bias. By anticipating these biases and designing questions that decrease their impact, researchers can increase the accuracy and reliability of the survey results.

2. Avoid question-wording bias

Avoiding question-wording bias is essential in lessening response bias because it helps ensure you phrase questions in a clear, neutral, and unbiased manner. Question-wording bias occurs when the wording of a question is unintentionally or intentionally biased, leading to inaccurate or unreliable responses.

Here are some ways in which avoiding question-wording bias can help decrease response bias:

  • Use clear and simple language. Clear and simple language is important because it helps ensure respondents understand the questions asked. For example, instead of asking "Do you support a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?", a clearer and simpler way to phrase the question would be "Do you support a tax on carbon pollution?"

  • Avoid biased or leading language. Biased or leading language can influence respondents' answers by suggesting a particular response or perspective. For example, instead of asking "Don't you agree that our new policy is an improvement?", a more neutral and unbiased way to phrase the question would be "What is your opinion of our new policy?"

  • Avoid double-barreled questions. Double-barreled questions ask about two different issues or concepts at once. For example, instead of asking "Do you think the government should prioritize healthcare and education?", it would be better to ask "Do you think the government should prioritize healthcare?" and "Do you think the government should prioritize education?" separately.

  • Use a small sample of participants. Using a small sample of participants may not directly help to decrease response bias. However, it can help to improve the quality and accuracy of data collected by allowing researchers to pilot test their survey questions and identify potential biases or issues before administering the survey to a larger sample.

Shunning question-wording bias can help minimize response bias by ensuring survey questions are clear, unambiguous, and unbiased, increasing the accuracy and reliability of the survey results. 

3. Diversify questions

By comprehensively understanding participants' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, broadening questions can reduce response bias. This approach can help capture a wider range of perspectives and experiences, reducing the risk of bias resulting from relying on a narrow set of questions or perspectives.

Researchers can consider using a mix of questions, such as open-ended questions, multiple choices, or rating scales, vary the specificity question level, and include questions from different perspectives, like exploring an issue's positive and negative aspects. 

4. Allow participants to say "no"

Letting participants say "no" can help reduce response bias by allowing them to opt out of questions they feel uncomfortable answering, don't have an opinion about, or don’t understand. This strategy can reduce social desirability bias, where participants may feel pressure to answer in a socially acceptable or desirable way, even if it doesn't reflect their true thoughts or feelings.

Researchers should ensure they present the study materials and questions in a non-coercive and non-judgmental manner. It will help create a safe and comfortable environment for participants, which increases their willingness to participate in the study and provide honest and accurate responses.

5. Effective administration

Effective administration is vital to lessening response bias and maintaining survey integrity. Researchers must always remain neutral and avoid behavior or actions that may influence participants' responses or compromise the survey's integrity.

Ways to ensure the effective administration of a survey can include:

  • Standardizing the survey procedures

  • Train survey administrators

  • Ensure confidentiality in participant's responses

  • Minimize participant's burden by having clear and unbiased survey questions

  • Monitor participant's response rate

Effective administration involves a range of practices and strategies designed to create a comfortable and respectful environment for participants. It also ensures you conduct the study in a way that is neutral, unbiased, and respectful of participants' time and privacy.

6. Avoid emotionally charged terms

Using emotionally charged terms can lead to response bias, as it can influence participants to respond in a way that may not reflect their true thoughts or feelings. Emotionally charged terms can evoke strong emotions or personal values, such as "fair," "unfair," "moral," "immoral," "right," and "wrong."

By avoiding emotionally charged terms in a survey or research study, researchers can help reduce response bias and increase the reliability of the data collected. This approach can enhance the overall value of the research and ensure the results reflect participants' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

FAQs

How do you identify a biased question?

A biased question attempts to influence the respondent towards a particular answer or point of view. Look for leading language, emotionally-charged words, false assumptions, limited answer choices, and omitted information.

What is response vs. non-response bias?

Response bias occurs when respondents provide inaccurate or untruthful answers. Non-response bias happens when individuals selected for a study do not participate, leading to a potentially unrepresentative sample.

Can the wording of a question create response bias?

Yes, the wording of a question can create response bias. It's known as question-wording bias. It occurs when you word a question in a way that influences how people interpret and respond to it, leading to inaccurate or misleading data.

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