(I Can't Get No) Satisficing

Callum Taylor

Callum Taylor, 2 February 2016

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a clipboard-toting interviewer who wants to ask us a “few” questions in the name of research. After ten long minutes our attention wanders and our answers become less thought through. This phenomena – known as satisficing – is a major cause of bias in surveys and is one of the major traps people face when creating surveys of their own.

In people’s quest for knowledge, they create long and overly complex surveys – mistakenly believing that more questions coincides with more data, and better decisions. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

In surveys, satisficing tends to occur when a person is searching for an appropriate compromise between completing a survey, and their own personal wants. Surveys can be both time consuming and mentally taxing, which can prompt the respondent to take shortcuts in order to reduce cognitive work and finish the survey faster – leading to poor or incomplete data sets, and ill-informed decisions.

Our mantra at Culture Counts is using evidence to inform decision-making. Consequently, it’s very important for us in helping to create high quality data. We’ve implemented various features, such as internationally validated questions and dimensions of quality, sliding scales and a beautiful survey interface to keep respondents engaged, with more on the way. As we continue to develop these features, here are some research-backed techniques that can help any survey master builder avoid satisficing behavior:

  • Keep your surveys short (under 4 minutes long);
  • Only ask questions that will lead to actionable insights;
  • Avoid repetitive tasks or questions;
  • Minimise mental strain by using simple phrasing, and presenting questions in an easy-to-use format;
  • Motivate respondents to responses (e.g. by explaining the purpose of the survey or offering a chance to win a prize)

While the above list is not guaranteed to avoid biases completely, it will definitely help you on your way. Be wary of overdoing it though as you may find yourself biasing the survey in another way!

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