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The acquiescence bias is a response bias in which the respondents to a scaled survey (like a Likert scale survey) have a tendency to agree with the question or give a positive connotation.
None, or few, of the respondent's answers are negative. This is an issue for the organization administering the survey because it’s unable to get clear data about areas where it’s lacking and can improve.
The reasons vary but it has been postulated that it occurs because of many important factors.
Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same. Your data is skewed. If you’re using the data gained to make important decisions in an organization then you may overlook areas that need improvement. In short, resources are wasted chasing factors that won’t make the organization better for you or your customers.
The best way to illustrate the acquiescence bias is with a fictional example.
Mr. James walks into a department store and is looking for a specific type of shoes and a shirt. He walks around looking for the items on his own. He finds the shoes he wants but can’t find the shirt.
He flags down an associate he sees walking by. Mr. James explains what he’s looking for and the associate starts helping him look through their items. The associate assists Mr. James for the next hour. He brings multiple shirts that are similar to what Mr. James wants but aren’t quite right.
The associate calls another branch of the department store to see if they have the right items in stock but they’re unable to find the exact one Mr. James needs. In the end, Mr. James doesn’t get the shirt he’s looking for but appreciates the effort the associate went through.
After buying his shoes, the cashier asks him to fill out a short feedback questionnaire. Mr. James starts filling it out and pauses when he encounters the statement “Our associates were able to meet all of your needs today” with the answers:
Technically, the associate wasn’t able to meet his needs but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He ticks the agree column because it would be a shame to discount the effort the associate put in.
This is just one example but it illustrates many factors at play when a respondent falls in line with the acquiesence bias.
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the effect and prevalence of the acquiescence bias in your surveys.
Clearly state what the goal of the survey is. Let respondents know why honest answers or more important that what they may consider the right answer.
Ask multiple more specific questions. Instead of asking if the associate was able to meet Mr. James needs, they could have asked about how knowledgeable the associate was, if they were able to help him, and their willingness to help.
This would’ve given Mr. James an opportunity to express his satisfaction with the associate’s effort but still point out that he didn’t get the help he needed.
Ask open-ended clarification questions. Open-ended questions give your respondent the opportunity to expand on their answer and the reason behind them. You’ll get much deeper insights into their through process and what you can do to improve. It may even reveal voice of customer research that can be used in marketing collateral.
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