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How To Get Honest Survey Responses

Collecting sincere answers is the key to a good survey. The problem arises when addressing sensitive topics: respondents may be tempted to hide for various reasons (social desirability). Fortunately, there are a few solutions to overcome this difficulty. Let’s start by defining what is meant by sensitive issues and social desirability.

Sensitive Issues And Social Desirability

By sensitive questions, we generally mean questions about social status and income, private life (hygiene, health, sexuality), marginal behavior, questions of religion, etc. Respondents may then be tempted into concealment, consciously or not, to give a better image of themselves or to conform to the social norm:

  • Be a good citizen
  • Be well informed
  • Appear as a cultured person
  • Give an impression of morality
  • Have social responsibilities
  • Hide his illnesses, his weaknesses, his incapacities
  • Hide illegal or borderline legal behavior
  • Not showing financial difficulties, meager income

This is what specialists call social desirability. If you do not address any sensitive topic in your questionnaire, you are more likely to obtain sincere answers from the interviewees. Other good news for you who have chosen to survey online: social desirability is lower in self-administered mode than in the presence of a surveyor (this is linked to a better perception of anonymity ). In any case, it is essential to identify sensitive questions when designing the questionnaire, if any, to draft them specifically.

How To Get Honest Answers

To avoid bias related to social desirability, several means are available to questionnaire creators (in some cases, they are more like tricks to get around the problem):

  • Offer a wide choice of response modalities, including uncommon opinions or behaviors.
  • This way of proceeding gives respondents more freedom and shows them that all answers are accepted, even those that do not conform to social desirability.
  • Limit the precision of the information requested so that the questions seem less intrusive
  • Typically, the respondent is asked what income bracket they are in instead of their exact monthly income (moreover, some people whose income is not regular only sometimes know the same amount per month).
  • Avoid implementing formulas and use an indirect approach instead.
  • For example, the respondent is asked to say what he thinks “people” would do in such a situation instead of asking him what he would do himself.
  • Break down a sensitive question into a series of less involving questions
  • In health surveys, for example, we know that if we ask people abruptly if they practice self-medication, we underestimate this practice. Another way of asking the question consists of citing several pathologies and asking the respondents how they treat themselves (consultation with a doctor, a pharmacist, self-medication, etc.). The answers will generally be more accurate.
  • Broaden the topic if an open-ended question is used to address a sensitive topic
  • The answers will be generally less precise, but the parts of the solution (verbatims) relating to the sensitive subject will be more sincere.
  • valuing the respondent so that they more easily reveal their weaknesses or limitations
  • For example, to find out whether voters have read the candidate’s platform, instead of asking:
  • Have you read candidate X’s platform?
  • The question will instead be asked:
  • Have you had time to familiarize yourself with the program of candidate X?
  • The first formulation risks inducing wrong positive answers: who would vote for a candidate without knowing his program? That would sound like an idiot…
  • With the second formulation, the respondent can provide an exact answer: no, he does not know the candidate’s program, but it is because he did not have the time! It is a question of making the respondent feel guilty, with a plausible pretext, so that he tells the truth.
  • In some cases (alcohol consumption, over-indebtedness, marginality), write a long question that highlights the practices in a normative way and allows the respondent to justify his answer.
  • To measure the proportion of over-indebted people, one can, for example, ask:
  • Due to the economic situation and, in particular, unemployment, we can only repay some of the loans we have contracted.
  • With this wording, there is a greater chance that the people affected by over-indebtedness will answer in the affirmative.

Assistance in designing and developing the questionnaire, validation of the questionnaire, familiarization with the tool, personalized services, tailor-made developments.

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