Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Effects on Response Distributions

06/01/2002

Even more troubling, potentially, than an effect on item missing data is the effect of incentives on the distribution of responses. Does offering or paying incentives to people who might otherwise refuse affect their answers to the survey questions?

It is useful to think about the reasons why effects on response distributions might occur. One is that the use of incentives brings into the sample people whose characteristics differ from those who otherwise would be included, and their answers differ because of those differing characteristics. If that is the case, the apparent effect on response distributions is really due to a change in the composition of the sample, and should disappear once the appropriate characteristics are controlled. An example of the first process is presented by Berlin et al. (1992), who demonstrate that the apparent effect of a monetary incentive on literacy scores can be accounted for by the disproportionate recruitment of respondents with higher educational levels into the zero-incentive group. There was no significant relationship between incentive level and the proportion of items attempted, indicating that the incentive influenced the decision to participate, but not performance on the test. Another example is presented by Merkle et al. (1998) in their report of an experimental effort to increase the response rate to exit polls by having interviewers in a random sample of precincts carry clipboards and folders clearly identifying them as associated with the major media and handing out pens with the same logo. Although the response rate was increased by these methods (not necessarily by the incentive alone), the responses were actually distorted because a greater number of Democratic voters were brought into the sample  apparently as a result of the clearer identification of the poll with the media. Effects of incentives on sample composition are discussed further in the following section.

A second reason incentives might influence responses is if they influence peoples opinions directly, or at any rate the expression of those opinions. A striking example of such influence (not, however, involving an incentive) is reported by Bischoping and Schuman (1992) in their analysis of discrepancies among Nicaraguan preelection polls in the 1990 election and the failure of many to predict the outcome of the election accurately. Bischoping and Schuman speculate that suspicions that preelection polls had partisan aims may have prevented many Nicaraguans from candidly expressing their voting intentions to interviewers. They tested this hypothesis by having interviewers alternate the use of three different pens to record responses: one carried the slogan of the Sandinista party; another, that of the opposition party; the third pen was neutral. The expected distortions of responses were observed in the two conditions that clearly identified the interviewers as partisan. Even in the third, neutral, condition, distortion occurred. The authors claim that polls apparently were not perceived as neutral by many respondents. In the Nicaraguan setting, after a decade of Sandinista rule, a poll lacking partisan identification was evidently regarded as likely to have an FSLN (Sandinista) connection (p. 346); the result was to bias the reporting of vote intentions, and therefore the results of the preelection polls, which predicted an overwhelming Sandinista victory when in fact the opposition candidate won by a large majority.

Still a third way in which incentives might affect responses is suggested by theory and experimental findings about the effects of mood (Schwarz and Clore, 1996). If incentives put respondents in a more optimistic mood, then some of their responses may be influenced as a result. Using 17 key variables included in the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, Singer et al. (2000) looked at whether the response distributions varied significantly by (1) the initial incentive or (2) refusal conversion payments, controlling for demographic characteristics.(3)

The offer of an initial incentive was associated with significantly different response distributions (at the .05 level) on 4 of the 17 variables; a refusal conversion payment also was associated with significantly different response distributions on 4 of them. One variable was affected significantly by both types of incentives.(4)  In five of these cases, the responses given with an incentive were more optimistic than those given without an incentive; in two cases, they were more pessimistic. In the remaining case, respondents who received an incentive were somewhat more likely to respond good and bad, and somewhat less likely to give an equivocal reply. Thus, there is a suggestion that respondents to the Survey of Consumer Attitudes who receive an incentive may give somewhat more optimistic responses than those who do not. Similar findings have been reported by Brehm (1994) and James and Bolstein (1990). However, such effects were not observed by Shettle and Mooney (1999) in their experimental investigation of incentives in a survey of college graduates, which found only 8 significant differences (at the .05 level) in response distributions to 148 questions  a number that does not differ from that expected on the basis of chance.

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