Response bias in surveys: What is it and how to avoid it?

When planning a survey, the goal is to gather reliable feedback while avoiding response bias. But sometimes, what you get back doesn't match reality. Here’s how to avoid just that.


When planning a survey campaign, the ultimate goal is to gather reliable and actionable feedback while avoiding response bias. 

The kind of feedback that accurately reflects the opinions and behaviours of your target audience.

But sometimes, what you get back doesn't quite match up with reality. 

While sometimes respondents may choose to respond with a misleading answer, the fault is more often than not in the survey itself. 

But don’t worry just yet! You can avoid such types of errors and bias in surveys with simple, impactful strategies. 

In this article, I’ll explain what response bias is, why it happens, and, most importantly, how you can dodge it. 

Let’s get straight into it. 

What is response bias?

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you had to say something just to fit in or avoid causing trouble? 

That's kind of what happens in surveys too. It's called response bias.

Response bias occurs when people answer survey questions inaccurately or misleadingly. 

We all want to appear a certain way, like the perfect employee or the environmentally conscious citizen, and surveys can elicit that desire to fit in, even if it really is a bit messier.

This type of error in surveys critically affects the reliability of your results. 

You might end up with wrong conclusions or miss important connections between things you're studying.

Response bias can happen in everyday situations. 

For instance, in job interviews, candidates may exaggerate their skills to impress the interviewer. 

In customer feedback surveys, people might give overly positive feedback to avoid conflict. 

In political polls, people might not share their true opinions due to fear or social pressure.

Types of response bias In surveys

For each of the examples of response bias discussed above, the reason for a misleading answer is different. 

Response bias is classified into different types. Let’s look into some of these types. 

Types of response bias In surveys

Social desirability bias

Let's face it: we all want to be seen in a positive light. 

This desire to present ourselves favorably can influence how we answer survey questions. 

Social desirability response bias is when people tend to answer survey questions in a way that makes them look good or socially acceptable, even if it's not entirely true.

This bias most likely arises when surveys touch on sensitive topics or behaviors.

For example, in a customer satisfaction survey, respondents might rate a product higher than they truly feel to avoid appearing negative. 

Similarly, in a survey about healthy habits, people might overstate their exercise routines to align with what is socially expected, even if they don't exercise as much in reality.

In both cases, people aren't giving their true opinions because they want to fit in or avoid judgment.

Acquiescence bias

Acquiescence bias occurs when people tend to agree with survey questions regardless of what they really think. 

You know, like when you're nodding along in a conversation even if you're not fully on board with what's being said.

Research finds a notable inverse connection between agreement scores and the level of formal education. 

In simpler terms, people with higher levels of formal education tend to show less variation in how much they agreed with statements or questions in the survey.

This type of response bias is common in long surveys. 

People might get mentally tired and just pick the same answer (usually agree) to move on quickly. 

It can also creep in with surveys that use vague or unclear language. They might default to agreeing if someone doesn't fully understand the question.

Let’s take an example of an employee engagement survey that asks if workers feel appreciated by their managers. 

Someone prone to acquiescence bias might reflexively say "yes" to this question, even if they don't feel valued, just because it's easier than disagreeing or being critical.

Demand Characteristics bias

Demand characteristics bias pops up when people try to figure out what the survey is all about and then adjust their responses to fit that idea, rather than giving their genuine opinions.

You'll often see demand characteristics bias in surveys where the purpose or desired outcome is pretty obvious. 

It can also happen when there are leading questions that hint at what the survey is focusing on.

Imagine a company is conducting a survey about a new advertising campaign. 

If the survey starts with response bias questions like "How effective do you think our latest marketing efforts are?" 


"Do you feel more inclined to purchase our product after seeing our ads?" 

Respondents might catch on that the survey is about gauging the campaign's success. 

In response, they may inflate their ratings to make the campaign seem more successful, although they weren't particularly swayed by the ads.

Self reporting bias

Surveys rely on people telling the truth, but sometimes, memory or honesty can get fuzzy. That's where self-reporting bias comes in. 

It happens when people's answers are influenced by their own forgetfulness or their inability to judge themselves accurately. 

Let’s say a survey asks a company’s employees about their daily social media use at work. 

Someone might underestimate how much time they spend scrolling through their feed simply because they haven't been keeping track. 

Another example could be an employee satisfaction survey that asks how often workers receive recognition for their hard work. 

Some employees might report higher levels of recognition than others based on their own perceptions of what "counts" as recognition. 

You'll find self-reporting bias in surveys that rely heavily on people's memories, perceptions, or subjective experiences. 

This could include surveys about lifestyle habits, satisfaction with products or services, or experiences with customer support.

Extreme response bias

Extreme response bias is when survey participants consistently choose the most extreme options available, such as "strongly agree" or "strongly disagree.”

It arises when respondents tend to take an all-or-nothing stance in their answers, often influenced by factors like question-wording, cultural background, or the desire to please the surveyor.

This type of bias is a real pain in surveys that use rating scales, like Likert scales (1-5) or agree-disagree formats. 

These formats are great for capturing opinions, but if you see a bunch of people picking only the most extreme options, your data might be skewed.

Voluntary response bias

Voluntary response bias happens when people who feel strongly about a topic are more likely to participate in a survey. 

So, when you ask people to take a survey, the ones with strong opinions or feelings jump at the chance to share their thoughts. 

But those who aren't as fired up skip out, thinking their opinion doesn't matter much, or they just don't care enough to bother.

Here's the problem: when only some eager respondents answer your survey, their opinions might not represent everyone else's. 

For example, if only super happy or super unhappy customers take the time to leave reviews in a customer satisfaction survey, you might get a skewed idea of how people feel about the product.

How to avoid response bias?

Response bias can make your survey data inaccurate. Here are a few practical tips on how to avoid response bias. 

Provide a simple, exhaustive set of answer options

If a survey asks, "How satisfied are you with our service?" with only "Very Satisfied" and "Dissatisfied" options, people with neutral opinions will be forced to choose an extreme answer. 

To avoid response bias, always provide a full range of answer options, including a neutral middle ground. 

For the above question, consider options like: 

  • "Very Satisfied"
  • "Satisfied"
  • "Neutral"
  • "Dissatisfied"
  • "Very Dissatisfied"

Try to avoid biased survey questions at all costs. 

Also, consider converting open-ended questions to close-ended with comprehensive answer choices. 

It will allow respondents to easily pick the option that best fits their feelings without having to think too hard or feel pressured to come up with their own response.

Minimize sensitive questions

Avoid asking questions that might make respondents uncomfortable or unwilling to answer truthfully. 

Sensitive questions can also reduce survey response rates drastically. 

If a question feels too personal or sensitive, people might either skip it or provide inaccurate information.  

For example, instead of asking, "How much money do you make?" which might be considered intrusive, you could ask, "Which of the following income ranges best describes your household's annual income?" 

This approach allows respondents to provide relevant information without feeling like they're revealing too much personal detail.

Leverage existing customer data

If you already have a wealth of information about your customers – use it! 

Demographics, purchase history, and past survey responses can help you target specific groups and personalize the survey experience.

For instance, if you have customer data showing that a particular demographic is more likely to use a specific feature, you could include specific questions about that feature in the survey for that demographic rather than a general population survey.

Use a mix of question types

A monotonous survey with only one type of question can be dull and lead to inattentive responses. 

Mix in multiple-choice questions with open-ended ones to gather both specific data and in-depth insights.

Different question types cater to different preferences. 

Some people might find it easier to choose from a list, while others might prefer to elaborate in their own words. 

This variety ensures everyone can participate and share their honest opinion.

Kick response bias out of the park!

To avoid response bias in your surveys, it’s best to make surveys with a range of answer options, avoid touchy questions, use what you already know about your customers, and mix up question types. 

Formaloo has a diverse range of survey templates that you can use to make bias-free surveys. 

You just need to pick a template and customize it to fit your needs. 

If you’re more of a DIY person, the platform lets you make your own surveys from scratch using drag-and-drop elements, customizable themes, and intuitive design tools. 

With Formaloo, you can rest assured that your surveys are user-friendly, fair, and get you the real deal from your audience. 

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Response bias in surveys: What is it and how to avoid it?