Survey psychology: The psychology of respondents

3 min read Andrew Mayfield

As Scott Smith wrote in his article “Why do People Participate as Respondents in a Survey?” there are several behavioural theories that underlie people’s decisions to respond to surveys. Here’s some of our thoughts about people’s motivations for responding to surveys. I’d love to take the time to do some real analysis on this topic, but for now please take it as it is; some of our thoughts. If you have thoughts of your own, please add them in the comments!

What motivates people to respond to your surveys?

1. “This looks interesting”

Sometimes the topic or the website itself sparks their interest. They may be curious about the method of survey, perhaps they’ve heard of tree testing. Or they may just enjoy completing surveys. Smith describes this as leverage-salience theory where interest is a key driver in the decision to participate.

2. “Show me the money”

Some respondents do it purely for the money or the shot at the prize. Their time = the reward. Otherwise known as social-exchange theory. In our experience you’ll get a much better response rate if you offer an incentive in exchange for their time and effort.

3. “I’d like to help out”

The respondent may know the company and feel an obligation to complete the survey in recognition of the time, effort and money spent by the researcher and the company they represent. Smith suggests that cognitive dissonance theory explains why people feel this way; they will feel bad about themselves if they do not help out.

4. “My opinion is important”

Respondents believe their opinions are valued and that their answers will be put to good use and may even benefit society in some way. Such as completing Microsoft error reports in the hope that one day, one day soon, the problems will go away! Or something like a customer satisfaction survey, sent out by a business to provide an opportunity for customers to feedback their thoughts and opinions. According to Ed Halteman the two main reasons people participate in surveys are:

  • they feel their participation will affect something they care about, and
  • they want to share their opinion with someone who will listen and act on the information.

5. “I’m bored anyway, let’s kill some time”

Online surveys that can be completed anywhere at any time can increase in appeal when faced with a long wait at the doctor’s office or when that term paper needs attention. No theory here, just personal experience.

Regardless of their motivation to respond to your survey, universal rules apply: keep the survey short (for example, we recommend no more than 8 to 10 tasks per participant in a tree test), keep the instructions simple (don’t put the onus on the participant to understand your survey), and thank people for their participation!

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