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Social Exchange Theory and Questionnaires Part 1: Questionnaire Design

Posted by on October 16th, 2017 Posted in: Blog, Bloggers' Bookshelf, Questionnaires and Surveys

Getting a high response rate is an important part of trusting the information you get from a questionnaire.  Don Dillman, a guru of questionnaire research, says that to get a good response rate it helps to see questionnaires as part of a social exchange.  Social Exchange Theory is the theory that “people are more likely to comply with a request from someone else if they believe and trust that the rewards for complying with that request will eventually exceed the costs of complying.”1 Specifically he says that when designing your questionnaires, distributing them, or communicating about them, you need to think specifically about ways to lower the perceived cost of responding to the questionnaire, and increase perceived rewards and perceived trust.

Social Exchange Theory Diagram

What do we mean by perceived cost, rewards and trust?  A cost might be the amount of time it takes to do the survey, but the perceived cost is how long that survey feels to the person answering it.  For example, if the survey is interesting, it could be perceived as taking less time than a shorter, but confusing or poorly worded survey.  A reward could be an actual monetary reward, or it could be the reward of knowing that you are participating in something that will make important change happen.  Perceived trust could be trusting that the organization will make good use of your responses.

Today I will only focus on questionnaire design — in future blog posts we will write about how social exchange theory can be used in communicating about and distributing your questionnaires.

One of the things I like about social exchange theory in questionnaire design is that normally I would be looking at the questions I’m writing in terms of how to get the information that I want.  This is fine of course, but by looking at the questions from a social exchange perspective, I can also be thinking about ways I might write questions to improve someone’s likelihood of completing the survey.

Ask yourself these three questions:

  • How can I make this easier and less time-intensive for the respondent? (Lower cost)
  • How can I make this a more rewarding experience for the respondent? (Increase reward)
  • How can I reassure the participants that it is safe to share information? (Increase trust)

Here are some ideas that might get you started as you think about applying social exchange theory to your questionnaire design.

Decrease Cost

  • Only ask questions in your survey that you really need to know the answers to so you can keep it as short as possible.
  • Pilot test your questionnaire and revise to ensure that the questions are as good as possible to minimize annoying your respondents with poorly worded or confusing questions.
  • Put open-ended questions near the end.

Increase Reward 

  • Ask interesting questions that the respondent will want to answer.
  • As part of the question, tell the respondent how the answer will be used, so they feel that by answering the question they are being helpful (for example “Your feedback will help our reference librarians know how to provide better service to users like you.”)

Increase Trust

  • A status bar in an online survey lets you know how much of the survey is left and helps you to trust that you won’t be answering the survey for too long
  • Assure respondents that you will keep responses confidential and secure. While this may have already been stated in the introduction, it could help to state it again when asking a sensitive question.

For more information, see:

NNLM Evaluation Office: Booklet 3 in Planning and Evaluating Health Information Outreach Projects series: Collecting and Analyzing Evaluation Data https://nnlm.gov/neo/guides/bookletThree508

NEO Shop Talk Blog posts on Questionnaires: https://news.nnlm.gov/neo/category/questionnaires-and-surveys/. Some

NEO Questionnaire Tools and Resources Guide on Data Collecting: https://nnlm.gov/neo/guides/tools-and-resources/data-collection


Dillman, Don A., et al. Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys : The Tailored Design Method, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, p. 24.

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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