Asking Sensitive Survey Questions

As marketers, sometimes we need to get information from respondents that they may not be willing to volunteer freely. When confronted with such inquiries, people may ignore the question, provide either untrue or incomplete responses, or even terminate the survey. Yet often, the survey often provides the only feasible means of obtaining information about a respondent’s religious affiliation, race, income, or other sensitive information. What’s a marketer to do? There are several ways around it:

Build Rapport with Respondent

Quite often, it is best to start a survey with neutral questions, and let the respondent work his or her way through the survey, letting each question lead up to the information you need to ask about. Placing controversial questions late in the questionnaire has two benefits. First, if the respondent chooses to stop the survey once he or she reaches the sensitive questions, you still have the respondent’s answers to all questions beforehand, which you can use for other analyses. Secondly, as the respondent works through the easy, unthreatening questions, he or she may feel as though trust is being established, and will be more likely to answer the question asking the sensitive information.

Be Casual About it!

Let’s assume you are trying to measure the incidence of tax cheating. Getting truthful responses can be very difficult. Try reducing the perceived importance of the topic by asking the question in a nonchalant manner: “Did you happen to have ever cheated on your taxes?” Worded this way, the question leads the respondent to believe the survey’s authors do not think that tax cheating is a big deal, so the respondent may be coaxed to answer truthfully.

Make it Sound Like “Everybody’s Doing It!”

Instead of directly asking a respondent if he or she cheats on his/her taxes, ask if they know of anyone who does. “Do you know any people who cheated on their taxes?” Then the next question could be, “How about you?” When he or she feels he/she isn’t alone, the respondent may be more inclined to be honest. Another way is to combine the casual approach with this one: “As you know, many people have been cheating on their taxes these days. Do you happen to have cheated on yours?”

Choose Longer Questions Instead of Shorter Ones

Longer questions can “soften the blow” with the excess verbiage, and reduce the threat. Consider these examples:

  1. “Even the most liberal people don’t pay their fair share of taxes to the government. Have you, yourself, not reported all your income to the government in the past two years?”
  2. “The Investors Business Daily recently reported on the widespread practice of middle class Americans to not report all their income for tax purposes. Have you happened to report less than all your income at tax time?”
  3. “Did things come up that kept you from reporting all your income to the IRS, or did you happen to report all your income?”

Note the patterns here. In the first question, we again make it sound like everyone is cheating on taxes. In the second, we appeal to an authority. In the third, we make it sound like circumstances beyond the respondent’s control made him or her unable to report all his income.

Try Some Projective Techniques

Make it sound like the respondent is just giving an estimate about someone else. Ask, “As your best guess, approximately what percentage of people in your community fail to report all their income at tax time?” When asked this way, a respondent might base the response on his or her own personal experience.

Try a Hierarchy of Sensitive Issues

Have a question that shows a list of answers ordered from least sensitive to most sensitive. A question like this:

“In the past 12 months or so, which of the following have you done? (Select all that apply):

    “Wear your shirt inside out”

     “Forget to hand in homework”

    “Lock your keys in the car while it was still running”

    “Discipline your child by spanking”

    “Take money out of your spouse’s wallet”

    “Meet an ex-girl/boyfriend behind your spouse’s back”

    “Withhold some information about your income at tax time”

    “Falsely accuse your neighbor of tax dodging”

Notice how this question moves the respondent from less threatening to very threatening answer choices. And by keeping the taxes part embedded – not the very first or the very last – the respondent sees that there are much worse behaviors than tax cheating he/she can admit to. Hence, the he/she is more likely to be truthful.

Summary

Questionnaire design is as much an art as it is a science, and wording sensitive questions is almost entirely an art. By building trust with your respondent, making him/her feel that it’s purely human to have the issue/behavior you’re trying to get the respondent to talk about, and finding soft, indirect ways to pierce the issue, you can get him or her to contribute more truthfully and calmly. As they say, “You attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar!”

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