Improving responses: Pete Cape, survey samling international

How are researchers supposed to engage with a public that is more savvy than ever and so traditional methods of appealing to self-esteem and offering rewards no longer cut it? Pete Cape investigates a new line of thinking

Pete Cape
Survey Sampling International
Global knowledge director

2006 Global knowledge director, SSI
2005 Managing director UK, SSI
2000 Managing director, TNS Interactive
1999 Managing director, TNS Audience Selection

Persuasive thoughts

How are researchers supposed to engage with a public that is more savvy than ever and so traditional methods of appealing to self-esteem and offering rewards no longer cut it? Pete Cape investigates a new line of thinking

As an industry we understand little about why people take part in research and, perhaps more importantly, why they don’t. We pride ourselves on being able to formulate questions and research studies to describe and explain all manner of consumer activities and behaviours, but when it comes to why people will not take part in a survey we are hamstrung by our own methods – we can’t force an answer out of someone who has no desire to take part in market research.

Getting responses from people has tended to take its lead from the early experiments of American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike and (perhaps more famously) Ivan Pavlov. They showed that responses to stimuli that produce a satisfying or pleasant “state of affairs” in a particular situation are more likely to occur again and that the converse is also true.

However, people do not like to think of themselves as purely mechanistic, and the Cognitive Approach re-introduced a more human dimension to human actions. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is probably the best known to non-psychologists and is usually presented as a pyramid of needs that humans seek to satisfy. These needs are ranked starting with the physiological at the bottom of the pyramid, working upwards through safety and security; love and belonging; to esteem. At the top of the pyramid are self-actualisation needs (personal growth and fulfilment), the desire to “know and understand” and the “aesthetic” needs.

Traditionally research has worked on the premise of appealing to esteem needs within the Maslow hierarchy: interviewers ask for “help” with this “important” survey, they tell respondents that they have been “chosen” to take part in this research. Respondents receive “esteem” in return for giving us their opinions.

No esteem in answers
But the myth of esteem is being broken. The public knows we do this for commercial reasons and that little of our clients’ spend ends up in the hands of the people giving up their time to supply us with knowledge. So if we view the world in only these simplistic psychological terms we will struggle to reverse the decline in response rates.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is one of the latest theories that seeks a more generalised approach. It assumes that “people are active organisms, with innate tendencies toward psychological growth and development” who “strive to master ongoing challenges and to integrate their experiences into a coherent sense of self.” It “requires ongoing nutriments and supports from the social environment in order to function effectively” that is to say, “the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth”.

SDT distinguishes between different types of motivation based on the different reasons or goals that give rise to an action. The most basic distinction is between intrinsic motivation – doing something because it is inherently enjoyable; and extrinsic motivation – doing it because it leads to a separable outcome. Tasks completed with intrinsic motivation are characterised by high quality, creativity and enjoyment on the part of the doer.

Motivation depends on the person, the task and the social context. People do not have a “single” motivation nor does the same task have the same level of motivation each time it is performed.

Motivational manoeuvres
Motivation is viewed, under SDT, as a continuum that is neither hierarchical nor uni-directional. Performance at a given task is seen to improve (both from an output perspective and from the performer’s well-being) as motivation moves “up” the scale towards intrinsic motivation (see chart, right).

A person’s position on the continuum for any given task will depend on their prior experience and their current social situation. Movement along the continuum is not dependent on the task itself but more about externalising or internalising the “focus of causality” (“they are making me do this” versus “I am doing this myself”), the relative autonomy (“I am free to do this task”) and perceived competence (“I performed that task really well”).

SDT has interesting implications for how research should be positioned both before, during and, perhaps more importantly, after interview. Feelings of autonomy need to be fostered to help “internalise the regulation” (that is, make the respondent feel that they wanted to take part in research, of their own free will) and that perceived competence must be encouraged. The end of the survey process has tended to consist of a “thank you and if you have any doubts about our bona fide offers please call…” Feedback on survey performance is something we may have to learn to give and develop the appropriate language for giving it.

The knee-jerk (behaviourist?) reaction is to offer monetary rewards for undertaking surveys. But SDT tells us that this may have a detrimental effect on motivation because the amount of the reward (often quite small) may cause dissonance (“you want my valuable opinion and you offer me this?”).

If we can move people along the SDT motivation continuum towards intrinsic motivation then the result should be better response rates to surveys and more enjoyment, effort and creativity on the part of the panellist leading to better quality research.

We already try to foster competence, value and autonomy through the community aspects of our panel and the Web space they share. The questionnaire used must also encourage respon- Needed: Respondents should be made to feel that they wanted to be part of the research, of their own free will dents towards intrinsic motivation through careful use of invitation wording, and encouraging words and phrases in the script.

It is obvious to all that we cannot allow response rates to decline still further, risking losing the market research industry altogether. Online research, using online access panels is no panacea. We have seen reductions in response in only the few short years that online research has been a viable research medium.

A greater understanding of the psychology of the interview situation can help us find where we are going wrong. Effective application of these principles should lead to increased motivation towards market research in the future.

Pete Cape
Tennyson House, 5th Floor,
159-165 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5PA
T: 020 7255 0350
F: 020 7255 0351

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