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Why do people participate as respondents in a survey?

Marketing researchers often ask the question, but few techniques have been developed to increase participation. The following theories are among those proposed (and studied to varying degrees) as answers to this question.


Obtaining information from respondents can be viewed as a social exchange. Very simply, social exchange theory asserts that the actions of individuals are motivated by the reward from these actions. For survey response to be maximized by this theory, three conditions must be present:

  1. The costs for responding must be minimized.
  2. The rewards must be maximized.
  3. There must be a belief that such rewards will, in fact, be provided.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that reducing dissonance is important as potential survey respondents decide whether to respond or not. The process begins with a questionnaire and invitation requesting participation.

A respondent’s self- perception of being a helpful person means that failure to respond will produce a state of dissonance. Potential respondents hope to reduce this dissonance by becoming a survey respondent. Since the decision process can involve a series of decisions, delaying the ultimate decision may be a way to avoid completing the questionnaire.

Delaying a decision, therefore, may in itself be a dissonance-reducing response.


Self-perception theory asserts that people find the causes of their behavior by interpreting their attitudes and knowledge. Interpretations are made on the basis of self-observation.

To the extent that a person’s behavior is attributed to internal causes and is not perceived as due to circumstantial pressures, a positive attitude toward the behavior develops. These attitudes (self-perception) then affect subsequent behavior. The self-perception paradigm has been incorporated into survey response.

Researchers utilize the concepts of salience (behaviors one has attended to), favorability (the affect or feeling generated by a given behavioral experience), and availability (information in memory). To enhance the effects, researchers should create labels. Labeling involves classifying people according to their behavior.

Commitment and involvement

Commitment and involvement deals with the allegiance someone feels for any system they belong to. Consistent behavior is a central theme, including the following characteristics:

  • Persists over some period of time
  • Leads to the pursuit of at least one common goal
  • Rejects other acts of behavior

Consequently, the major elements of commitment are viewed as including the following:

  1. The individual is in a position in which his or her decision regarding particular behavior has consequences for other interests and activities not necessarily related to it.
  2. The person is in that position by his or her own prior behavior.
  3. The committed person must recognize the interest created by one’s prior action, and realize it as being necessary.

Someone highly committed to some activity will probably stick to it longer than someone uncommitted.

The theory of commitment (or involvement) can be extended to explain survey response behavior. Commitment can be attached to many different aspects of a survey, such as the source or the sponsor, the researcher, the topic and issues being studied, and/or the research process itself.

To a large extent, commitment is manifested by interest in what is being asked of the potential respondent.

The following hypotheses (untested) can be proposed:

  1. The less favorable the attitude toward a survey’s sponsor, topic, and so forth, the less involvement with, and thus commitment to, anything related to that study.
  2. The less the extent of involvement, the more behavior productive of disorder (e.g., non-response, deliberate reporting of false information, etc.) is perceived as legitimate.
  3. The more behavior productive of disorder is perceived as legitimate, the less favorable the attitude toward the survey.


Reciprocity requires that a person give an in-kind response to another: positive for positive, negative for negative. Explained by social exchange theory, reciprocity covers incentives, money or otherwise offered to the prospective respondent.

A potential respondent may also feel the obligation to reciprocate and complete and return the questionnaire, based on the request to participate and the recognition that time, effort, and resources were invested by the researcher.


This theory suggests that interest in a topic is a key factor in prospective respondents’ willingness to participate in surveys. Potential respondents vary in the importance they assign to different aspects of a survey request.

The incentive, topic, sponsor, survey appearance, and even the general predisposition toward taking surveys can influence the respondents’ willingness to participate.

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