Response Bias, Or Why What People Actually Do Is More Telling Than What They Say They Do

a multicolored array of circles with question marks in them, slightly overlapping one another
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Psychological research as a field continues on and on. Even in these times of tight academic budgets and the challenges that come from conducting research during a pandemic, researchers press ever onward.

There’s so much happening that it’s pretty much impossible to keep up on everything going on in psychological research. Typically, even research professionals are lucky to keep fully up on what’s going in their specific corner of the research world. So for a lay person? Well, it gets tricky.

However, the good news is that there are certain ideas that crop up again and again in research. One fundamental principle a lot of people studying psychology for the first time are surprised to learn is the following: The way people act and the way they think they act are often very different.

When you start getting into imagined actions, the variance can be even more drastic. People who think they will act one way in hypothetical scenarios often do not act that way at all when actually in that situation.

This duality has driven a lot of research and helped us better understand the very complex ways a human mind can work.

But it can also be a giant pain in the butt for researchers. Because you never quite escape this phenomenon if you’re designing research studies. That’s because of something called “response bias.”

What Is Response Bias?

What is response bias? In its most basic terms, it’s the general tendency for study participants to answer questions in a way that’s inaccurate or downright false. Response bias is the bane of every person who has ever conducted a survey. It’s part of why surveys — no matter how well designed their questions — always have a disadvantage as far as bias when contrasted with an experimental design that manipulates conditions and observes how the participants react in response to the manipulation.

Why does response bias happen? Well, there are a variety of common reasons. To see some of them, here are some specific forms of response bias (a more general umbrella phenomenon):

  • Acquiescence bias. Some participants have a tendency to say “yes” to anything they’re asked, even if it means agreeing with contradictory statements.
  • Demand characteristics. A participant tries to give the response they think the researcher is looking for and in effect to be a “good participant.”
  • Extreme responding. Some participants tend to pick the most extreme answers and never choose moderate ones. (This tends to be very prominent in certain cultures versus others.)
  • Question order bias. The order in which a question is asked can affect the answers to it and the framing of the subject matter.
  • Social desirability bias. Some participants tend to pick answers they think are socially desirable rather than what they actually feel/think.

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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:

Psychic City, a Psychic State mystery

 

Non-Fiction:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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