What Is a Survey and When Should You Use One?

Completing a survey
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A survey is a data collection tool used to gather information about individuals. Surveys are commonly used in psychology research to collect self-report data from study participants. A survey may focus on factual information about individuals, or it might aim to obtain the opinions of the survey takers. Surveys are one of the most commonly used research tools and can be utilized to collect data and describe naturally occurring phenomena that exist in the real-world.

How Are Surveys Used in Psychology Research?

A survey can be used to investigate the characteristics, behaviors, or opinions of a group of people.

A survey can be administered in a couple of different ways. In one method known as a structured interview, the researcher asks each participant the questions. In the other method known as a questionnaire, the participant fills out the survey on his or her own.

Surveys are generally standardized to ensure that they have reliability and validity. Standardization is also important so that the results can be generalized to the larger population.

Advantages of Using Surveys

One of the big benefits of using surveys in psychological research is that they allow researchers to gather a large quantity of data relatively quickly and cheaply. A survey can be administered as a structured interview or as a self-report measure, and data can be collected in person, over the phone, or on a computer.

  • Surveys allow researchers to collect a large amount of data in a relatively short period.
  • Surveys are less expensive than many other data collection techniques.
  • Surveys can be created quickly and administered easily.
  • Surveys can be used to collect information on a broad range of things, including personal facts, attitudes, past behaviors, and opinions.

    Disadvantages of Using Surveys

    One potential problem with written surveys is the nonresponse bias. Experts suggest that return rates of 85 percent or higher are considered excellent, but anything below 60 percent might have a severe impact on the representativeness of the sample.

    • Poor survey construction and administration can undermine otherwise well-designed studies.
    • The answer choices provided on a survey may not be an accurate reflection of how the participants actually feels.
    • While random sampling is generally used to select participants, response rates can bias the results of a survey.
    • The social desirability bias can lead people to respond in a way that makes them look better than they really are. For example, a respondent might report that they engage in more healthy behaviors than they do in real life.

    Types of Survey Data Collection

    Surveys can be implemented in a number of different ways. The chances are good that you have participated in a number of different market research surveys in the past.

    Some of the most common ways to administer survey include:

    • Mail - An example might include an alumni survey distributed via direct mail by your alma mater.
    • Telephone - An example of a telephone survey would be a market research call about your experiences with a certain consumer product.
    • Online - Online surveys might focus on your experience with a particular retailer, product or website.
    • At home interviews - The U.S. Census is a good example of an at-home interview survey administration.


    Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. (2010). Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

    Goodwin, C. J. (2010). Research in Psychology: Methods and Design. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    Nicholas, L. (2008). Introduction to Psychology. Cape Town: Juta and Company Ltd.

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