5 Reasons Why Survey Respondents Don’t Tell the Truth

five reasons for bad survey dataPlease stop lying (and we’re not talking about politicians)–One of the challenges marketing researchers face is the frequently asked question, “How do you know if your respondents are lying?” Occasionally, it’s easier for the businesses to believe that research participants are lying instead of that their ideas are incorrect or even plain old bad. But the fact is, respondents do lie.

No one knows the extent of dishonesty among survey takers. (After all, if you lie on the survey, won’t you lie about being honest?) As reported by one survey analysis company, “Ask some survey data experts and you’ll hear that up to 50 percent of people in any given sample will provide dishonest responses on any given survey. Ask another group of experts and the number drops to “a small minority” of respondents who will either purposely or inadvertently fill your survey with a few mistruths.” But if they believe the survey is confidential, why lie?

There are several reasons for respondents to be less than 100% honest in completing surveys. First and foremost, we have to consider that the respondent is not lying, but believes the answer they are giving is correct. It may be that the behavior being asked about happened to long ago for accurate memory (e.g., small purchases that happened more than a month ago.) Or it may be questions about something that is hypothetically going to happen in the future (e.g., how likely are you to buy this product.) Part of the responsibility for incorrect responses has to lie with researchers, our design plans, and our methodologies.

Another researcher-driven cause for respondent dishonesty is bad survey design. It may be the respondent cannot find an answer that accurately reflects their beliefs or they feel excluded from the options available for multiple choice questions. Or perhaps they shouldn’t be taking the survey at all. Or perhaps the interview is longer than promised, and they are short on time. Whether these situations result in lying, bad data or incomplete data, this is a problem that we can avoid with improved questions, screened samples, and – above all – shorter surveys.

5 Reasons When Respondents are Knowingly Dishonest:

  1. Respondents want to appear better than they are. Whether that’s cooler, richer, more beautiful – respondents lie to build their self-worth.
  2. Respondents give socially desirable answers. Survey estimates of respondent voting are always higher than actual voter turnout. That’s because you’re supposed to vote, right? So respondents lie about whether they vote or not.
  3. They don’t want to answer questions about sensitive behavior. Sex. Personal finance. Drug and alcohol use. Illegal behaviors. Respondents are always more likely to lie about sensitive topics.
  4. People want to give the answer they believe will “help” or “please” the researcher. Many people just want to help you (the researcher) out. And so they make up responses based on their belief about what you need.
  5. Respondents believe they can influence the outcome of the research in their favor. If you absolutely love the product concept, you may say you will buy it more frequently than you actually think you will, in hopes of getting it introduced into the marketplace.

So, in the words of House, MD, “Everybody lies.” In research, it’s a fact of life. But there is no respondent rating service telling us which respondents have “pants on fire.” However, in addition to improving survey and question design, screening for the right respondents, and keeping surveys short, there are some additional ways to “catch” liars. We’ll talk about those in next week’s blog.

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