Our guide to survey bias identifies 12 distinct types. Among these is one of the most misunderstood and difficult to prevent. It’s also the hardest to spell! It is, of course, acquiescence bias.

In this post we explore the topic of acquiescence bias in more details, with deeper insights on why it happens and how to spot it. Crucially, we look at how to prevent acquiescence bias from impacting your customer feedback program. 

What is acquiescence bias?

Acquiescence bias is when respondents to a survey question have a tendency to agree with statements they don’t necessarily agree with. It is best characterized by the notion of a respondent ‘going along’ with what they presume is expected rather than what their actual preference is. 

Acquiescence bias is a common issue in customer surveys, but also employee surveys too. In fact any survey or questionnaire may have some aspect of acquiescence bias depending on who the respondents are and how the question has been posed.

Acquiescence bias also goes by several other names that basically mean the same thing:

  • Agreement bias
  • Confirmation bias
  • Courtesy bias
  • Politeness bias
  • Yes bias

Each of these hints at some of the reasons why, and in which circumstances, acquiescence bias happens.

Why does acquiescence bias happen?

Acquiescence bias is a continual threat to the measurement accuracy of survey results. The causes come from two primary sources:

  • The respondent’s personality and current state of mind 
  • The survey question and how it is asked (including, where applicable, who it is asked by)

Seen through this prism, the following triggers for acquiescence bias can be identified:

Respondent agreeability

When the respondent (or interviewee) is predisposed to being agreeable, this can make acquiescence bias more likely. Agreeability may exist for cultural or environmental reasons, or it may just be their character type. Some people are more agreeable than others. By the same token, some people can be more disagreeable than others.

Respondent courtesy / politeness

The respondent does not wish to offend or ‘rock the boat’ by being negative or disagreeable. As with some of the other reasons in this list, acquiescence bias can be more likely when the respondent can be personally identified (rather than anonymous). Even then, some people can’t help being polite and eager to please. 

Respondent fatigue

Acquiescence bias can occur when the respondent’s overwhelming priority is completing the survey so they can do something else instead. They are fatigued by the survey process and want it to end. As a result, they become disinterested in the content of the questions and don’t want to exert effort thinking through answers. It feels ‘easier’ to tend toward agreeing or selecting a positive response in such circumstances. 

Interviewer superiority

In some cases when respondents are physically interviewed, agreeable responses can arise because of a sense of inferiority and deference to the person asking the questions. If the interviewer is confident and knowledgeable, an interviewee lacking in self confidence may give responses indicating that the interview ‘knows better than them’. The same effect can manifest itself in class differences, and even between the sexes.

Leading survey questions

Best practice for survey design is to be vigilant against composing ‘leading’ questions. Leading questions use language and word formation to ‘lead’ respondents toward a particular answer. In cases of acquiescence bias, the way the question is phrased makes it more logical to agree with. Studies have shown that individuals are susceptible to misrepresenting their ideas, knowledge or beliefs when confronted with information that is explicitly positioned as ‘correct’ or the consensus view. Some survey exercises intentionally use leading questions to manufacture a particular response – typically for communications purposes. These are statistically unreliable. 

Agree/disagree questions

Types of survey questions that provide the facility to agree or disagree with statements are not necessarily prone to bias. However, when some of the personality-led issues described above are present, agree/disagree questions are the means to give effect to acquiescence bias.  

How can you identify acquiescence bias?

The insidious danger of acquiescence bias is that it’s so difficult to detect. Like many other biases, you can barely check its impact simply by analyzing survey results. 

Feedback isn’t translating into good decisions

In fact, the first many organizations know about acquiescence bias is when decisions taken on the back of survey feedback turn out to be wrong. 

Let’s take the example of an employee pulse survey that asked how staff felt about the new car parking arrangement being launched at the company HQ. 

  • The results showed that everyone seemed to understand how it would work, and supported the idea even though those with cars would be docked a $1/day fee from their monthly pay. 

  • However, 2 weeks after launching the program, staff have been complaining about how unfair it is and many don’t know how the system works.

Depending on how the question was asked and in what context, the source of the issue could be acquiescence bias. Did the employees just go “yeah, whatever” and tick boxes to make the survey go away? Had the questions been (unintentionally) framed to elicit a more positive answer than people actually felt?

Some respondents say they agree with (almost) everything

The only other way to detect acquiescence bias is by digging into the minutiae of survey results to look for agreeableness patterns. This might be tricky to spot unless the respondent is persistent in agreeing with pretty much everything. Very few people do that because they’re being polite to ‘tending toward the positive’. It’s more likely in those cases where respondents have given up the will to properly engage with your survey. They’re committed to filling it out alright – perhaps because you’ve offered an incentive – but they’re not paying attention and just going along with everything.

How to avoid acquiescence bias when gathering customer feedback?

Don’t fatigue survey respondents with long questionnaires

You can drastically reduce the chance of acquiescence bias by using one-question surveys – the shortest and simplest you can create. This eliminates the possibility of survey fatigue by demanding minimal time and cognitive effort.

Make the survey an engaging experience

Why should surveys feel like drudgery? Make them engaging – another way to stave off survey fatigue. You can achieve this by making them non-disruptive and a logical part of customer communications, even embedding them into email signatures. And use engaging response icons based on emojis or even your brand. Many leading organizations also understand that surveys are an extension to the overall brand experience, and design them accordingly.

Communicate the aims of your feedback survey

Respondents rarely give biased responses on purpose – it’s typically subconscious. One way to make them more aware of their responses choices is by underlining their importance. Do this by stating the objectives of your feedback survey more prominently.  When respondents understand that their feedback will be listened to and used to make changes, improve training or reward staff, they’re less likely to respond unwittingly.

Avoid leading questions

Leading questions contain subjective statements and – intentionally or not – skew responses to a certain outcome. For example, “how much did you enjoy our great new service?” forces respondents to accept the premise the service is “great”. We give 10 such examples later in this guide. Typically you just need some minor rewording to get your questions back on track.

Consider alternatives to agree/disagree questions

As stated earlier, there’s nothing biased about asking for agree/disagree responses to a statement. It’s just that certain personality types in certain scenarios are likely to agree rather than disagree, whether that represents their view or not. There are lots of types of questions, so use agree/disagree responses sparingly and think of alternatives where possible.

Close the customer feedback loop

We’re big advocates for responding to feedback, planning your responses to different types of feedback in advance. It’s all part of closing the customer feedback loop, which is where an organization responds directly to customer feedback in a structured way. While it’s not a primary benefit of this approach, it’s logical that doing it consistently will reduce acquiescence bias. Simply put, if you’re following up with respondents about their feedback, you’re confronting them with what their feedback was. Typically that’s to ask for reasons why they gave the feedback they did. If they didn’t mean it in the first place – because of acquiescence bias – you’ve at least got a shot at helping rectify and adjust your results.

10 examples of leading questions

Leading questions use word choices and structure that leads a respondent toward a particular answer. At first glance such questions often appear to be relevant and reasonable, even though they are pushing specific responses.

What these 10 examples have in common in their subjectivity. This alone makes any interpretation of the results skewed towards what the question was leading towards. Some of the other features in these examples include:

  • Coerciveness
  • Assumptions
  • Connecting unconnected statements

For customers:

  • If you really enjoyed your next stay at The Plaza Hotel, you’d write a Google review wouldn’t you?

  • How much did you enjoy our wonderful new service? 

  • Are you looking forward to our great new store opening?

  • A lot of people dislike paying with cash in stores. Do you feel the same way?

  • Do you always leave at least a 10% gratuity for table service?

For employees:

  • On a scale of 1–10 (where 1 is ‘OK’ and 10 is ‘out of this world’) how amazing was last week’s company beer and pizza outing?

  • You were happy with this year’s annual bonus weren’t you?

  • Modern office design involves a maximum of 10 square feet of desk space and no personal items. Do you agree it’s a good idea to implement this?

  • How much did you enjoy taking part in today’s training?

  • To what extent do you agree that this is a fantastic company?

How to avoid acquiescence bias by using Customer Thermometer

Customer Thermometer provides the ideal platform for generating customer feedback that avoids the risk of acquiescence bias. Here’s 4 reasons why:

Customer Thermometer is the home of the one-question survey

It didn’t get faster and simpler than one-question surveys. It’s the perfect springboard for representative, real-time feedback you can act on with confidence. The minimal effort demanded of respondents with this format are reflected in some of the highest response rates in the industry.

Custom-design surveys to maximize engagement

Based on over 10 years’ experience leading the way with global brands in every sector, our customizable survey builder gives you total flexibility to engage with respondents to maximum effect. Choose from hundreds of response icon options or implement your own. Test your designs and reformulate questions for optimum results.

Close the loop functionality

With Customer Thermometer you can close the loop with every feedback respondent using our automated workflows, reports and alerting. By instituting an auditable, interactive process from inside the Customer Thermometer engine, you can turn acting upon feedback triggers into a seamless process. The CT Closed Loop feature allows you to set trigger levels for the kind of feedback you want agents to follow-up. When these come in, Closed Loop prompts them to take the appropriate action to “close the loop”. Managers get a rich reporting interface with a ‘loop landscape’ showing agent and team performance. All activity data is tracked and timestamped so it’s easy to audit for service compliance standards like ISO 9000 and ITIL.

Comprehensive analysis

From real-time widgets and dashboards to extensive data reports, Customer Thermometer presents the feedback you collect into the intelligence you need. Ideal for pinpointing any acquiescence bias concerns and drilling down into individual response histories.  

employee experience dashboard feedback

Start getting accurate customer feedback

Start getting engaging feedback from your customers in minutes. Our free trial should give you plenty of opportunities to experiment with fast, effective feedback surveys. We integrate with practically every platform and generate some of the best response rates in the business. Simply fill out the form below to get more feedback to engage your audience.