Online survey respondents reveal different personality traits compared to face-to-face respondents

Post developed by Nicholas Valentino and Katherine Pearson

Survey research is an ever-evolving field. Technology has increased the number of ways to reach respondents, while simultaneously reducing response rates by freeing people from the constraints of one land-line telephone per household. Surveys remain an essential tool for making inferences about societal and political trends, so many survey researchers offer incentives to survey respondents in order to ensure a large and representative sample. Financial incentives to complete surveys, in turn, entice some people to respond to a large number of online surveys on a regular basis, essentially becoming professional survey respondents. 

Survey methodologists have carefully considered the ways that survey modes may impact the way people answer questions. Talking to a real person is different than answering questions online. But less is known about how individual factors bias participation in surveys in the first place. For example, might personality traits shape your willingness to agree to answer a survey online versus someone who comes to your door? New work from researchers at the University of Michigan and Duke suggests in fact this is the case. 

In a new paper published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Nicholas A Valentino, Kirill Zhirkov, D Sunshine Hillygus, and Brian Guay, find that citizens who are most open to new experiences may be underrepresented in online surveys. Furthermore, “Since openness to experience in particular is associated with liberal policy positions, differences in this trait may bias estimates of public opinion derived from professionalized online panels.” 

In order to examine the personality traits of survey respondents, the research team used data from the 2012 and 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES). During these two study periods, the ANES ran parallel and face-to-face surveys. In both years, the ANES included the 10-item personality inventory (TIPI), which consists of pairs of items asking respondents to assess their own traits. Based on the responses, respondents build a profile of “the Big Five” personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.

Big Five traits with corresponding TIPI qualities 

Trait TIPI Qualities Coding
Openness to experience Open to new experiences, complex 

Conventional, uncreative

Original

Reversed

Conscientiousness Dependable, self-disciplined

Disorganized, careless

Original

Reversed 

Extraversion Extraverted, enthusiastic

Reserved, quiet

Original

Reversed 

Agreeableness Critical, quarrelsome

Sympathetic, warm

Reversed 

Original

Emotional Stability  Anxious, easily upset

Calm, emotionally stable

Reversed 

Original

 

Researchers were able to compare responses to the TIPI with measures of political predispositions and policy preferences, based on responses to questions on the ANES. These include partisanship, liberal–conservative ideology, issue self-placements, and other measures of political orientation. 

Based on these data, the authors found that respondents in the online samples were, on average, less open to experience and more politically conservative on a variety of issues compared to those responding to face-to-face surveys. They also found that the more surveys a respondent completed, the lower they scored on measures of openness. Given that professionalized survey respondents comprise the majority of online survey samples, these results suggest caution for those who would like to generalize results to the population at large. It is not enough to balance samples on simple demographics. Attitudinal and personality based differences might also lead online sample estimates to diverge from the truth. 

It is difficult to say whether online survey respondents or face-to-face respondents are more representative of personality traits in the general population. If personality is a factor in whether someone will participate in a survey, that might bias both types of samples. However, the authors note that the data suggest that professional online samples are the outlier. They find “that samples based on fresh cross-sections, both face-to-face and online, yield better population estimates for personality and political attitudes compared to professionalized panels.” While it may be possible to mitigate the potential sampling bias of personality traits, it is important that survey researchers understand the role that personality traits play in professional online samples.

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