Why Are Surveys Not Reliable? Because Survey Respondents May Lie

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five reasons for bad survey dataPlease stop lying (and we’re not addressing politicians). One of the biggest challenges marketing researchers face is actually getting the truth out of survey respondents. Unfortunately, no one knows the full extent of dishonesty among survey takers. (After all, if you’ve already lied on a survey, what’s stopping you from lying about lying?)

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 why respondents might be less than 100% honest when answering questions. 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 too long ago to remember (i.e., “Which version of this item did you last purchase?”). Or maybe it’s hard to give an accurate answer to a question about something that is hypothetically going to happen in the future (i.e., “How likely are you to buy this product?”). Part of the responsibility for incorrect responses lies with us as researchers, as well as with our design plans and our methodologies.

Another researcher-driven cause that can lead to lying on surveys 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 the interview is longer than promised and they are short on time. When these situations prompt lying, bad or incomplete data is the inevitable result. Thankfully, this is a problem we can avoid with improved questions, screened samples, and—above all—shorter surveys.

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5 Reasons Why Survey Respondents Are Knowingly Dishonest

  1. Survey respondents want to appear better than they are. Whether that’s cooler, richer, or more beautiful, respondents lie to build their self-worth.
  2. Survey 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. Survey respondents don’t want to answer questions about subjects they deem personal. Examples include sexual activities, personal finances, and drug habits. Respondents are always more likely to lie about sensitive topics.
  4. Survey respondents 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. Survey 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.” Fortunately, 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

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is it called when people lie on surveys?

While there is no specific term referring to the act of lying on a survey, the phrase “response biases” encompass a wide range of tendencies that prompt survey respondents to provide inaccurate information. Unfortunately, such biases can have a significant impact on the validity of the survey in question. 

Is it illegal to lie on a survey?

Generally speaking, it is not illegal to lie on a survey. There are a few government-related exceptions, however. For example, penalties can be imposed on those who lie on the U.S. census. It is technically a federal crime to evade census questions or provide false information. 

Why do people lie in research?

There are several reasons why survey respondents might be inclined to lie. They may not want to share too much personal information, for example, or they may want to appear better than they are. Some people may even lie in an attempt to influence the outcome of the research. 

How can you prevent survey respondents from lying?

While there is no foolproof way to ensure 100% of survey respondents provide accurate and truthful information, there are strategies for reducing the likelihood of lying. For example, you can emphasize the importance of the research, allow respondents to remain anonymous, and avoid “trigger” questions that ask about behaviors or beliefs.

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Kyle Burnam

Kyle Burnam is the CEO of Infosurv and the leader of its sister company, Intengo, where he oversees all client research and R&D projects. Having been in the industry since 2005, Kyle brings a wealth of experience to the table and an innovative eye to every project.