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Response Rate: A Psychological Assessment: Moving to Maslow’s Couch

Since the behaviorists, psychological theory has taken a more humanistic approach to understanding human motivation, moving beyond the tactic of presenting/removing a stimulus in order to achieve a desired response. One of the early psychologists to probe deeper into human motivation was Maslow. The research field has used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a theoretical basis for how to motivate respondents to complete a survey. Here is some background on Maslow’s theory-


Summary of Maslow’s Theory:

There are six levels to Maslow’s hierarchy. The hierarchy proceeds from the lowest, base needs, to the highest, self-fulfilling needs.


Level 1: Physiological Needs– Food, water, oxygen, etc.

Level 2: Safety and Security– Structure, order and predictability.

Level 3: Love and Belonging– Having family, friends, and group identification.

Level 4: Esteem– Recognition, esteem, status, feeling adequate and competent.

Level 5: Self-Actualization– The need for personal growth and fulfillment.

Level 6: Knowledge and Understanding and Aesthetic Needs.


Translating Maslow’s Theory to Collecting Customer Feedback:

Within the arena of collecting customer feedback, researchers have tended to focus on the need for esteem as a way to encourage survey participation. More specifically, Maslow’s theory has been translated in the following ways-


          Interviewers ask for help in completing an important survey.

          Survey invitees are told that they have been chosen to participate in the survey.

          Survey invitees are told that their opinion counts.


Shortcomings of Applying Maslow’s Theory to Response Rate:

The above words have been chosen to try and create feelings of esteem in potential responders, attempting to make the solicited customer feel special. While these words may have motivated people to participate in surveys in years past, given the prevalence of surveys, and the knowledge that most people have about this prevalence, these words alone are not likely to solve the response rate issue. This is not to say that potential responders should not be made to feel special, rather this should just be one aspect of the overall approach to increasing response rate.  A sustained increase in response rate is likely to involve consideration of the entire customer feedback process, not just one element. Theoretical findings from fields like psychology can provide guidance in addressing specific aspects of the feedback process that can be improved upon in order to achieve improved response rates.


Next week, we will apply a more recent theory on human motivation to response rate- Self Determination Theory.


Amy Heleine 

Director, Marketing Sciences 



Cape, P., “Understanding Respondent Motivation,” Survey Sampling International White Paper, 1-17.

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