SURVEY RESEARCH EMPLOYS QUESTIONNAIRES AND INTERVIEWS TO ASK PEOPLE TO PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT THEMSELVES— their attitudes and beliefs, demographics (age, gender, income, marital status, and so on) and other facts, and past or intended future behaviors. In this chapter we will explore methods of designing and conducting surveys, including sampling techniques.
Surveys are a research tool that is used to ask people to tell us about themselves. They have become extremely important as society demands data about issues rather than only intuition and anecdotes.
Surveys are being conducted all the time. Just look at your daily newspaper, local TV news broadcast, or the Internet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting results of a survey of new mothers asking about breast-feeding. A college survey center is reporting the results of a telephone survey asking about political attitudes. If you look around your campus, you will find academic departments conducting surveys of seniors or recent graduates. If you make a major purchase, you will likely receive a request to complete a survey that asks about your satisfaction. If you visit the American Psychological Association website, you can read a report called Stress in America that presents the results of an online survey of over 1,300 adults that was conducted in 2010.
Surveys are clearly a common and important method of studying behavior. Every university needs data from graduates to help determine changes that should be made to the curriculum and student services. Auto companies want data from buyers to assess and improve product quality and customer satisfaction. Without collecting such data, we are totally dependent upon stories we might hear or letters that a graduate or customer might write. Other surveys can be important for making public policy decisions by lawmakers and public agencies. In research, many important variables—including attitudes, current emotional states, and self-reports of behaviors—are most easily studied using questionnaires or interviews.
We often think of survey data providing a snapshot of how people think and behave at a given point in time. However, the survey method is also an important way for researchers to study relationships among variables and ways that attitudes and behaviors change over time. For example, the Monitoring the Future project (http://monitoringthefuture.org) has been conducted every year since 1975—its purpose is to monitor the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American high school and college students. Each year, 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students participate in the survey. Figure 7.1 shows a typical finding: Each line on the graph represents the percentage of survey respondents who reported using marijuana in the past 12 months. Note the trend that shows the peak of marijuana popularity occurring in the late 1970s and the least reported use in the early 1990s. Recent years have seen a steady increase in use though.
Percentage of survey respondents who reported using marijuana in the past 12 months, over time
Adapted from Monitoring the Future, http://monitoringthefuture.org/data/10data/fig10_3.pdf
Survey research is also important as a complement to experimental research findings. Recall from Chapter 2 that Winograd and Soloway (1986) conducted experiments on the conditions that lead to forgetting where we place something. To study this topic using survey methods, Brown and Rahhal (1994) asked both younger and older adults about their actual experiences when they hid something and later forgot its location. They reported that older adults take longer than younger adults to find the object and that older adults hide objects from potential thieves, whereas younger people hide things from friends and relatives. Interestingly, most lost objects are eventually found, usually by accident in a location that had been searched previously. This research illustrates a point made in previous chapters that multiple methods are needed to understand any behavior.
An assumption that underlies the use of questionnaires and interviews is that people are willing and able to provide truthful and accurate answers. Researchers have addressed this issue by studying possible biases in the way people respond. A response set is a tendency to respond to all questions from a particular perspective rather than to provide answers that are directly related to the questions. Thus, response sets can affect the usefulness of data obtained from self-reports. The most common response set is called social desirability, Page 135or “faking good.” The social desirability response set leads the individual to answer in the most socially acceptable way—the way that “most people” are perceived to respond or the way that would reflect most favorably on the person. Thus, a social desirability response set might lead a person to underreport undesirable behaviors (e.g., alcohol or drug use) and overreport positive behaviors (e.g., amount of exercise). However, it should not be assumed that people consistently misrepresent themselves. If the researcher openly and honestly communicates the purposes and uses of the research, promises to provide feedback about the results, and assures confidentiality, then the participants can reasonably be expected to give honest responses.
We turn now to the major considerations in survey research: constructing the questions that are asked, choosing the methods for presenting the questions, and sampling the individuals taking part in the research.
A great deal of thought must be given to writing questions for questionnaires and interviews. This section describes some of the most important factors to consider when constructing questions.