Return to:   The Survey Method
The survey method of research asks a representative sample of people oral or written questions to find out about their attitudes, behaviours, beliefs, opinions, and values.

The Survey MethodThe survey method gathers quantitative data on those thoughts, feelings, and behaviours we have in common, or on which we differ. The survey method asks a representative sample of people the same questions about particular attitudes, opinions, values and beliefs. If the sample is truly representative this allows the generalisation of results to the population from which the sample came. Surveys can be used on their own or with other research methods such as the experiment, observation and the interview. The survey method shares an important feature with the more structured of interviews and observations. This is the gathering of data by self-report from a respondent or interviewee. Surveys modes see surveys conducted by post, face-to-face, by telephone, videophone and the Internet. A good survey will be designed well, with standardised instructions and questions. A pilot survey is often conducted to allow this to occur. Survey questions can be either open or closed. Open questions give rise to open, descriptive answers, while closed questions restrict respondents' choice of answer. Open questions can give you too much qualitative, descriptive information in answers, which makes working out our common or differing attitudes, opinions etc. difficult. Closed questions, which give quantitative or numerical answers, are useful, especially if a Likert scale of measurement is used. Advantages of the survey method of research are that it is cheap, easily administered; replicable, and a large amount of data can be got from a lot of people in a fairly short time. Most importantly a well-designed survey, if given to a representative sample, allows the researcher to generalise their results to the population from which this sample came. Disadvantages include poor design, GIGO, reliability and validity, acquiescence response, a tendency to give socially desirable answers, and response and sampling bias.

The Survey Method

  • A survey can generate empirical data giving a measurement of behaviours, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and values of a target population.

  • Large amounts of standardised information can be got from a large number of people in a short space of time. If designed well and completed by a representative number of people, survey results can be generalised onto the population from which the representative sample came.

  • Surveys are highly replicable, and can be used on a longitudinal basis to constantly update us on questions of interest. Such as voting trends etc.

  • Surveys are also easy to score, unless open-ended questions used. We get quantifiable data from a survey that can be useful to help develop and support hypotheses.

  • They are cheap! If a survey is well designed it is a most useful tool of research in its own right, or as rich soil for future research using other methods of enquiry.

  • GIGO: Any research method that uses oral or written instructions / questions must first standardise them. This is to ensure that all participants / respondents get the same clear and unambiguous instructions / questions. What you put in to a survey by way of careful design, you get out of it in terms of valid and reliable data. Poorly designed instructions and questions see a survey suffer from the GIGO effect. 'Garbage in, garbage out'!

  • Acquiescence response is a tendency people have to agree, or say 'Yes'; especially to things that they think don't affect them that much. Surveys can be very prone to acquiescence response.

  • Response set arises when a respondent think they see a pattern of desired answers to survey questions, and answers accordingly. To avoid response set, scaling, and the randomisation of questions is recommended.

How To Design A Good Psychological Survey.

Before doing anything take on board the following five principles behind survey design. These are:
  1. Keep the language simple.

    Parten (1950) says that language used in a survey should be able to be understood by an 11 year old.

  2. Keep the questions short and on one issue.

    The longer a survey the less likely folk will fill it in.

  3. Avoid technical terms.

    As people will probably not know what you are talking about!

  4. Avoid leading questions.

    An example of a leading question is:

    'Have you stopped smoking cannabis? Yes/No'

    Whatever way the respondent answers this they would be breaking the law. Think about it, and don't use leading questions in survey design.

  5. Avoid emotive or moral questions.

    An example here would be:

    'Have you ever had an abortion? Yes/No'

    These type of emotive or moral questions asked of others are really none of our business!

12 Steps To A Successful Psychological Survey

If you decide to use a survey as a research method in psychological research it's a good idea to adopt the following design model or research process.

Select an area of psychological interest.
Research the topic area to get ideas about what questions to ask. Use SCIRUS on the Home Page as your starting point.
Write your questions down.
Use Closed Questions at the beginning of your survey to get good quantitiative data about your sample.
For better survey item analysis use a Likert Scale to get quantitative data on answers to your survey item questions.
Mix up the sequencing of survey item questions in order to avoid response acquiescence set.
Write down your standardised instructions, which come at the begionning of your survey. They should also make reference to the general purpose of the survey, confirming that the respondent agrees to take part, has a right to withdraw etc. See The BPS Psychologists Code of Conduct at
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Conduct a pilot survey with a small group of people. It is best if they are from the same group as will complete the final survey. Their job is to tell you if they understand the standardised instructions, can follow how to answer the questions, the questions themselves etc.
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Redraft and if necessary pilot it again. Don't be lazy. Remember GIGO.
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Conduct your survey.
Debrief your respondents, and give them an indication of how to find out the results.
Analyse your results. And that's it!

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