Survey response effects are phenomena that can influence the way people answer questions. This is not farfetched as surveys are universally acknowledged as a vital means to gather information, especially in research, business, and policymaking.

They allow you to collect data from a diverse group of individuals, providing a snapshot of their thoughts, opinions, and behaviors. However, the quality of survey responses is not always straightforward. People may not always provide honest, accurate answers, and this is where survey response effects come into play.

Survey response effects refer to the various biases and tendencies that can affect how individuals respond to survey questions. These effects can compromise the reliability and validity of your data. Understanding these response effects is crucial for anyone conducting surveys, as it helps in designing more effective and accurate questionnaires.

In this article, we’ll explore the types of survey response effects, their causes, and the implications they have on your research.

Types of Survey Response Effects

1. Response Bias

Response bias is a prevalent type of survey response effect that occurs when respondents provide answers that they believe are expected or socially acceptable rather than their true opinions or experiences. This bias can lead to inaccurate data, as people may alter their responses to align with what they think is the “right” answer, making it challenging to gauge their actual sentiments. Response bias also has drivers some of which are;

1a. Social Desirability Bias

One of the main drivers of response bias is social desirability bias, where respondents tend to give answers that make them look good or conform to societal norms. For instance, if a survey asks about alcohol consumption, respondents might underreport their drinking habits to present a more socially acceptable image.

Implications: Social desirability bias can distort survey results, leading to inaccurate conclusions. It can affect your understanding of sensitive topics such as drug use, prejudice, or illegal activities. To combat this bias, consider anonymizing responses and using indirect questioning techniques.

1b. Acquiescence Bias

Acquiescence bias is the tendency for individuals to agree with statements or questions without giving them much thought. Respondents may use this strategy when they’re unsure or indifferent, leading to responses that don’t truly reflect their beliefs. This bias can skew data and make it challenging to discern genuine opinions.

Implications: Acquiescence bias can dilute the quality of your survey results, rendering them less meaningful. To address this issue, include reverse-coded questions that require respondents to disagree, and provide clear instructions to encourage thoughtful responses.

1c. Extreme Response Bias

Extreme response bias occurs when respondents consistently select extreme options, such as “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree,” in a survey, regardless of the content of the question. This tendency can lead to skewed data and affect the overall balance of responses.

Implications: Extreme response bias can distort the interpretation of survey results, making it difficult to identify nuanced opinions. To mitigate this bias, ensure that your survey includes questions with a range of response options and encourages thoughtful consideration.

2. Non-Response Bias

Non-response bias occurs when certain groups or individuals are less likely to participate in a survey, leading to an unrepresentative sample. This can skew survey results and compromise their validity because the non-respondents may have different opinions or characteristics than those who do respond.

Non-response can skew survey results by creating a sample that does not accurately represent the entire population. If specific groups, such as younger or less educated individuals, are less likely to respond to your survey, the data collected may overrepresent the views of those who did participate, leading to an inaccurate picture of the population’s opinions or behaviors.

Consequences of Non-Response Bias on Data Validity

Non-response bias can have significant consequences for data validity. It can lead to erroneous conclusions, misinformed decisions, and flawed research outcomes. For example, if a survey about healthcare preferences primarily captures responses from a healthy population, the results may not reflect the needs of individuals with chronic illnesses, thereby leading to ineffective healthcare policies.

Causes of Non-Response Bias

Several factors contribute to non-response in surveys. These include:

  1. Survey Length: Lengthy surveys can discourage participation, as they demand more time and effort from respondents. To mitigate this, ensure your surveys are concise and relevant.
  2. Survey Timing: Conducting surveys at inconvenient times, such as during holidays or peak work hours, can reduce response rates. Aim for survey timing that respects respondents’ schedules.
  3. Survey Channel: The choice of survey distribution channel can impact response rates. Some individuals may be more inclined to respond to online surveys, while others prefer phone or mail surveys. Use multiple channels to reach a broader audience.

Impact of Non-Response bias on Survey Representativeness

Non-response bias can undermine the representativeness of your survey sample. If certain groups are disproportionately less likely to respond, your data may overrepresent the views of more accessible groups. To address this, employ random sampling techniques, and consider offering incentives to boost participation among underrepresented groups.

Strategies to Address Non-Response Bias

  1. Follow-Up Surveys: Send reminders or follow-up surveys to non-respondents. Sometimes, a gentle nudge can encourage more individuals to participate.
  2. Incentives: Offer incentives, such as gift cards or discounts, to motivate respondents to complete the survey. Ensure that these incentives are relevant and appealing to your target audience.
  3. Personalization: Make your survey invitations and reminders more personal. Address respondents by their names and clearly explain the survey’s purpose and benefits.
  4. Optimize Survey Design: Ensure your survey is user-friendly and easy to navigate. Use clear and concise language, and minimize the time required to complete it.
  5. Use Multiple Contact Channels: Reach out to potential respondents through various channels, such as email, phone, and social media, to increase the likelihood of reaching a diverse group of participants.

Causes of Survey Response Effects

A. Survey Design Factors

Question Wording: The phrasing of survey questions plays a crucial role in influencing respondents’ answers. Poorly worded questions can lead to confusion, misinterpretation, or bias. To craft unbiased and effective survey questions:

  • Use clear and concise language: Ensure that questions are easy to understand and free of jargon.
  • Avoid leading or loaded questions: Frame questions neutrally to prevent respondents from feeling pressured to provide a particular response.
  • Pilot test questions: Test your questions on a small group to identify potential issues with wording or comprehension.

Question Order: The sequence of questions within a survey can affect responses due to the order effect. Respondents may be influenced by prior questions, altering their subsequent answers. To minimize order effects:

  • Randomize question order: Rearrange questions for different respondents to mitigate the influence of question sequence.
  • Use logical progression: Arrange questions logically to maintain a flow that makes sense to respondents.

B. Respondent Characteristics

(i) Demographics: The characteristics of survey respondents, such as age, gender, education, and cultural background, can significantly influence their responses. It’s essential to consider these factors when designing surveys, especially in diverse populations:

  • Tailor questions to demographics: Customize questions to be relevant to the specific demographics of your target audience.
  • Use inclusive language: Ensure that survey language is inclusive and doesn’t exclude any demographic group.
  • Analyze demographic data: After collecting responses, analyze data by demographics to identify potential biases.

(ii) Psychological Factors: Respondents bring their unique psychological traits to surveys, which can affect response quality. Two key psychological factors to consider are:

  • Cognitive Load: Respondents have limited cognitive resources, so complex or lengthy surveys may lead to fatigue, affecting response quality. Keep surveys concise and prioritize essential questions.
  • Response Style: Some individuals have a consistent tendency to respond in a particular way, such as agreeing or disagreeing with most statements. Awareness of this trait can help in interpreting responses accurately.

Implications of Survey Response Effects

A. Data Reliability and Validity: Impact on Data Quality

Response effects can compromise the quality and accuracy of survey data in several ways:

  1. Biased Responses: Response biases like social desirability and acquiescence can lead to respondents providing answers they believe are expected, rather than their true opinions or experiences. This can distort the data, making it unreliable.
  2. Skewed Distribution: Extreme response bias can result in a skewed distribution of responses, making it challenging to identify trends or patterns accurately.
  3. Inconsistent Data: Question-wording issues or order effects can introduce inconsistency in responses, rendering it difficult to compare and analyze data effectively.
  4. Reduced Validity: When response effects are not accounted for, the validity of survey data is compromised. Researchers may draw conclusions based on flawed information.

B. Challenges in Drawing Conclusions

Response effects pose significant challenges when attempting to draw valid conclusions from survey data:

  1. Misleading Insights: If survey results are influenced by biases or other effects, the insights drawn from the data may not accurately reflect reality. This can lead to misguided decisions and actions.
  2. Difficulty in Generalization: When response effects affect the representativeness of the sample, it becomes challenging to generalize findings to larger populations. This can limit the applicability of research outcomes.
  3. Inaccurate Assessments: Researchers may misinterpret data due to the presence of response effects, leading to incorrect assessments of phenomena or issues under study.

c. Decision-Making and Policy Implications

Flawed survey data can have significant repercussions for business strategies and decision-making:

  1. Misguided Investments: Businesses rely on accurate market research to make informed investment decisions. If survey data is compromised by response effects, investments in products, services, or marketing strategies may not align with actual customer preferences.
  2. Product Development: The development of products or services based on inaccurate survey data can result in costly failures or missed opportunities.
  3. Customer Satisfaction: If customer feedback is distorted by response biases, businesses may misjudge their level of customer satisfaction, leading to misguided efforts to improve customer experiences.

c(i) Public Policy

The impact of survey response effects extends to the formulation and effectiveness of public policies:

  1. Policy Development: When surveys are used to gather public opinion on policy matters, response effects can distort the perception of public sentiment. This can lead policymakers to develop policies that do not accurately reflect the desires or needs of the population.
  2. Resource Allocation: Government agencies often allocate resources based on survey data. If the data is biased or unreliable, resources may be misallocated, leading to inefficiencies or inequities in public services.
  3. Policy Effectiveness: Flawed survey data can hinder the evaluation of policy effectiveness. Policymakers may struggle to determine whether policies are achieving their intended goals if the initial data used for assessment is unreliable.


In summary, survey response effects are a critical consideration in survey research. Understanding and addressing these effects is paramount for you to obtain reliable data and make well-informed decisions. Whether in research, business, or public policy, recognizing and mitigating response effects ensures that the insights derived from surveys are accurate and impactful.

  • Olayemi Jemimah Aransiola
  • on 8 min read


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