6 types of bias that can derail your research

6 types of bias that can derail your research teaser

Date published 21 Jun 2021

Bias is an occupational hazard for market researchers. It can distort the truth, skew numbers and misinform analysis. It’s why we become skilled at spotting the tell-tale signs and taking steps to address bias – in all its forms – before it becomes a problem. After all, people don’t always say what they mean – or mean what they say.
So, even though market research is becoming more automated, there will always be a need for market researchers trained to identify, understand and mitigate against cognitive bias, to deliver the full picture. Bias is essentially a mental shortcut used to make quick judgements.

It can be helpful in everyday life when we’re faced with a steady stream of decisions. But left unchecked in a focus group or an in-depth interview, and bias has the potential to derail your research.
There are many types of bias, but let’s take a look at 6 that may occur in qualitative research, specifically focus groups and in-depth interviews. We’ll also explore some of the tactics a skilled market researcher will employ to recognise the bias and mitigate its impact.

Firstly, 3 types of bias that may occur on the part of respondents:
1. Conformity bias
Conformity bias is the tendency to give an opinion that feels socially appropriate. Respondents will often do this to fit in or to not offend anyone. In a focus group, they may go along with what everyone else is saying, even if it is plainly wrong or they simply disagree.

What tactics can we employ?

A respondent who feels comfortable in the group will be far more motivated to speak up, especially if they’re reassured there are no right, or wrong, answers and that the researcher will not be upset or offended by the opinions being shared. Tasks that remove ‘group think’ can be invaluable, such as asking respondents to write down their thoughts individually, before sharing their opinions as a group.

2. Authority bias
This type of bias describes the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure, even if that figure is unrelated to the topic under discussion. In focus groups, authority bias can occur when one person asserts their authority or presents themselves as being something of an expert on the subject. This can deter others from speaking up or lead them to agree with whatever is being said.

What tactics can we employ?

Careful screening of focus group participants can reduce the risk of including well-meaning ‘experts’ who may influence others. For example, this can be as simple as checking their field of employment to make sure there’s no conflict with the discussion topic.

If someone emerges as an expert in the group, an experienced researcher will ask direct questions of the other participants. They’ll let them know it is okay to disagree and remind them that everyone’s opinion is valid.

3. Self-serving bias
This describes the tendency for someone to blame negative outcomes on outside factors and to give themselves credit for positive events or outcomes.

What tactics can we employ?

A skilled market researcher will ensure they are fully aware of a range of factors that may influence what someone says, gently asking questions that may shed light on the respondent’s beliefs about a particular situation and the role they played. This bias is closely linked to self-esteem, so it’s important to tread carefully.

What about bias on the part of the researcher?
Respondents are just one half of the equation. There’s also the potential for bias to creep into the market researcher’s thinking while they’re conducting a focus group or in-depth interview, such as the way in which they phrase questions or how they interpret the opinions and information they obtain.

A skilled market researcher will acknowledge they are not immune to bias and will take steps to remain neutral. Here are 3 biases they’ll be watching out for in order to give their clients the most authentic insight and analysis possible:

4. Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to receive and interpret information based on what aligns with existing beliefs. Maybe they’ve already completed part of the research and are unconsciously expecting similar results in the next round of research. If the researcher doesn’t keep this type of bias in check, they won’t be presenting a full and accurate picture in their findings.

What tactics can we employ?

An experienced researcher will explore all possible research hypotheses before starting the research. This way, they won’t go into the exercise with a narrow sense of what they might discover.

Other tactics they can employ are to design a diverse sample to ensure all hypotheses are fully explored and different viewpoints are presented. Always following up with probing questions such as “Why do you say that?” means they will have the chance to quash any assumptions they may have about the respondent’s initial response.

Asking questions that purposefully seek out contradictory evidence is another way to evade confirmation bias. A good market researcher is always prepared to be surprised.

5. Anchoring bias
This can happen when people are given a number that provides a starting point for their response. For example, if someone was asked “Does $500 sound fair?” they will typically anchor their response to this figure.

Perhaps they wanted to say that $5 or $5000 was fair but are now unlikely to because their number is too far away from the anchor they’ve been offered. Similarly, the first person’s response in a focus group discussion is likely to anchor everyone’s else’s responses.

What tactics can we employ?

Structuring questions from broad to narrow will draw out more authentic responses. For example, the question “What price do you think would be fair?” doesn’t offer a starting point. Once the broader questions have been asked, then the researcher can drill down using narrower questions, such as asking for feedback on specific price options.

In focus groups, another tactic would be to ask each respondent to write down their answers first, before inviting group discussion.
6. Recency bias
As the name suggests, this bias is the tendency for researchers to give greater importance to the most recent event. Think of a lawyer’s closing argument in a court case. Of everything the jury has heard, the closing comments are likely to make the greatest impression.

In qualitative research, recency bias has the potential to distort the final picture if the researcher gives greater weight to the findings at the end of the project, especially if the focus groups or in-depth interviews have been conducted over several weeks.

What tactics can we employ?

Taking a structured approach is crucial. This could include capturing notes in a methodical and consistent way and conducting interim analysis to capture key themes and findings throughout the project, not just at the end.

Experienced research professionals will purposefully revisit what they heard during early stages of the project to make sure their final findings reflect what was said by the entire sample.


Our number one tip?
Biases are sneaky and most of the time people are completely unaware of them. So, when commissioning qualitative research, ask your research team what biases might come into play and what steps they’ll be taking to overcome them. Remember, it takes a trained mind, eye and ear to plan for and actively address any bias that may occur when conducting research.

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