Unwillingness to answer. 4 reasons why people refuse to respond

Mr Bean

If you’ve ever used a survey in a research or evaluation project, you may have encountered unanswered questions by some respondents. Even if respondents are able to answer a particular question, they may be unwilling to do so. There are usually four key reasons why respondents sometimes don’t answer questions in surveys.

1. It’s too much effort

Most respondents are unwilling to devote a lot of effort to provide information, unless they are provided with an incentive to do so. Suppose the researcher is interested in determining which museums or galleries the respondent went to recently. This information can be obtained in one of two ways. The researcher could ask the respondent to list all of the things they saw at the museum or gallery, or the researcher could provide a list of exhibitions and ask the respondent to tick the applicable ones. The second option is preferable because it requires less effort from respondents.

2. The context is not explained

Some questions may seen appropriate in certain contexts but not in others. For example, questions about leisure activities may seem appropriate when conducting a survey for an entertainment precinct but not when part of an employee satisfaction survey. Respondents are unwilling to respond to questions that they consider inappropriate for the given context. Sometimes the researcher can manipulate the context in which the questions are asked so that the questions can seen appropriate.

3. The purposes doesn’t seem legitimate

Respondents can be reticent to divulge information they do not see as serving a legitimate purpose. Why should an organisation hosting a music festival what to know income level and occupation? Explaining why the data is needed can make the request for the information seem legitimate and increase the respondents’ willingness to answer. A statement such as ‘To determine how this event can better plan for people of various ages and occupations, we need information on…’ can make the request for information seem legitimate.

4. The information is too sensitive

There can be an unwillingness for respondents to disclose sensitive information, because this may cause embarrassment or threaten their self image. If pressed for the answer, respondents may give biased responses, especially during personal interviews. Sensitive topics include money, religion, family life, sexual orientation, and involvement in accidents or crimes.

Tips for increasing willingness to respond

A number of techniques may be adopted to increase the likelihood of obtaining information that respondents are unwilling to give.

  • Place sensitive topics at the end of a survey. By then initial mistrust has been overcome, rapport has been created and respondents are more willing to give information
  • Preface the question with a statement that the behaviour is of interest
  • Ask the questions using the third-person technique, that is, as if referring to other people.
  • Hide the question in a group of other questions that respondents are willing to answer.
  • Provide response categories rather than asking for specific figures. For example, income brackets. In personal interviews, give the respondents cards that list the numbered choices. The respondents can indicate their choice by number and feel somewhat removed.

Think carefully about the questions you need to include in a survey or interview for a social research or evaluation project.  It can be automatic to include standard demographic questions, for example, that may be unnecessary for your purposes. Rather than providing you with useful information, they can have the effect of alienating your respondent, creating an unwillingness to respond, and consequently discouraging them from completing the interview.

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