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Response Rate: A Psychological Assessment: Sitting on the Behaviorists’ Couch

In previous blogs, we have reviewed findings-to-date, regarding what specific elements of the survey process have been shown to be influential on response rate.  If we take a step back from the specifics, at the heart of the response rate issue, is respondent motivation. How do we get respondents to want to take a survey? In a recent article by Pete Cape, “Understanding Respondent Motivation,” he provides a historical review of how psychological theory on human motivation can help us tap-into motivating survey respondents.  This week, I will start with his review of the Behaviorists, relating how Behaviorist theory can provide insight to the response rate issue.

Behaviorist Theory in a Nutshell

·         The behaviorists provided the concepts of reinforcement, punishment and extinction.

o   Reinforcement concerns strengthening a desired behavior as the result of either experiencing a positive condition (Positive Reinforcement) or eliminating a negative condition (Negative Reinforcement).

o   Punishment concerns weakening behavior as a result of experiencing an aversive condition (Positive Punishment), or removing a positive condition (Negative Punishment).  

o   Extinction occurs when the reinforced behavior is no longer effective.

·         A primary criticism of behaviorist theory is that it provides a mechanistic view of human behavior, which is limited, as the motivation behind human behavior is complex.


How does Behaviorist Theory Aid Understanding of Response Rate?


Sometimes you can learn the most from the criticisms of a theory. Respondents are unlikely to be sustainably motivated to complete a survey by making any single improvement, or removing any single negative component, at one point-in-time. For example, providing a deadline by which to complete the survey has been shown to significantly impact response rate; however, a deadline alone is not likely to sustain response rate, rather there are many other influential factors. Instead of focusing on any one factor, consider the entire survey process-

·         Remember that the process starts before the respondent chooses/declines to take the survey- creating a survey that is easy for the respondent to take, pre-communication, personalizing communication, scheduling reminders, etc.

·         And, the process continues after the respondent completes the survey- communicating and acting upon findings, showing and proving that the feedback matters.


Next week, we will start to examine psychological theories that assume a more humanized-approach, exploring how understanding human needs can help us tackle declining response rates.


Amy Heleine

Director, Marketing Sciences



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

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