When People Tell You What They Think You Want to Hear

it's a photograph of a sign that says "work in progress sorry for any inconvenience caused." on the sign is also a little drawing of a worker wearing a hard hat.
Image by Alexander Baxevanis / CC BY

It is really difficult for an organization to get honest feedback.

Whenever I talk about this (whether it’s part of a training or even at a research presentation), I’ll inevitably get someone who jumps in and argues with the premise almost immediately.

“Not from me,” they’ll say. “I let people know what I think.”

And it’ll typically turn into a bit of a production where I’m assuring them that I’m not talking specifically about them. That feedback is informed by trends, and no individual person should feel the burden for how participants as a whole tend to act. I’ll also typically pivot to talking about a few common examples of bias that plague people when they’re giving feedback.

And as I’m doing this, even if I don’t bring it up specifically as one of my examples, I’ll be reminded ever so strongly of courtesy bias.

Courtesy Bias

Courtesy bias is the tendency for people to offer an opinion that is more socially acceptable than their true beliefs. In essence, when you fall prey to courtesy bias, you’re telling someone what you think they want to hear. Courtesy bias can play out in many ways:

  • a conspicuous expression of desirable moral values, especially in a public forum, to indicate to others that you are principled (whether or not the person actually evidences them in private)
  • telling a pollster that you’re going to vote for the candidate you think will win and not the niche candidate you secretly will vote for
  • withholding negative feedback even if you’re unhappy with a service or product someone has provided because you don’t want to offend anyone (for example, telling the manager at a restaurant your food is fine when he asks, even if your waiter brought you the wrong food)
  • suffering in silence about a problem

In the case of the class participant who wants me to know they’re a straight shooter, I often think of the first case: The conspicuous expression (and demonstration) of frankness and honesty at the exact moment I’m talking about the difficulties of getting honest feedback.

But essentially, courtesy bias is people’s tendency to tell others what we think they want to hear.

When it comes to biases, courtesy bias is actually one of the more benign ones. It’s more frequent in situations where there’s a power imbalance (supervisor-employee interactions are plagued by courtesy bias, for obvious reasons — as are researcher-subject ones).

In the short term, courtesy bias can actually be a very rewarding strategy to the person who employs it, as they avoid the discomfort and risk that can come with direct confrontation. However, long term it tends to rob both the person doing it and everyone they interact with of the opportunity to actually address reality.

Ways to Address Courtesy Bias

Typically, the best way to circumvent courtesy bias in formal interviews is to phrase questions very carefully. One common useful technique is to be the first one to say something negative. For example, if you find during an interview that they have only talked about positives, you can in later questioning point out a negative or a challenge that could be possibly associated with what you’re talking about and then ask them about their experience. In this way you’re tacitly giving them permission to admit negatives, by demonstrating that you yourself are comfortable doing so.

Further, anonymity should also be stressed, and if possible, built into the method of collecting feedback. (People tend to exercise far less courtesy bias when using a form or filling out an online survey than they do with a real life person in front of them.)

Additionally, questioning them about the experiences of other people they know can be quite effective. Interestingly, people are far more likely to admit a friend or someone they know had a bad experience than they are that they themselves had one (even if those bad experiences were of similar disappointing quality).

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It can sometimes be difficult to snake out the unpleasant truths, but organizations are often better for the effort, no matter whether those are polyamorous advocacy organizations, kink groups, or for-profit companies in other fields.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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