What is Bias in Qualitative Research?

In qualitative research, bias affects the validity and reliability of findings, and consequently affects business decisions.

Bias distorts truth. Bias slants and skews data in qualitative marketing research.

In marketing research, bias is inevitable. You need to recognize bias and reduce it, or at least be aware of it.

In qualitative marketing research, there are five major categories of bias:

  • Moderator bias
  • Biased questions
  • Biased answers
  • Biased samples
  • Biased reporting

Moderator Bias

The moderator collects the data and has a major impact on the quality of the data.

The moderator’s facial expressions, body language, tone, manner of dress, and style of language may introduce bias. Similarly, the moderator’s age, social status, race, and gender can produce bias.

Some of these influences are unavoidable, but you can control some of the physical influences. Remain as neutral as you can in dress, tone, and body language. And don’t give opinions, while moderating.

Biased Questions

A biased question influences respondents’ answers. And the way you ask a question can bias a question.

Recognize and avoid biased questions. You’re in control of the questions. Check your interview guide for biased questions, and rephrase them or remove them.

Here are some common biased questions found in qualitative research.

Leading Questions Bias

Leading questions suggest what answers should be.

Putting words in respondents’ mouths slants their answers.

Here is an example of a leading question.

“Some people think cola drinks are bad for you. What do you think?”
Instead, frame the question neutrally.
“What is your opinion about cola drinks?”

By keeping questions neutral, you reduce question bias. Write and ask neutral questions.

Misunderstood Question Bias

Sometimes moderators ask questions respondents misunderstand.

Words, context, culture, and different interpretations of words and sentences cause misunderstanding.

Simple, clear, and concrete questions reduce misunderstanding.

Unanswerable Question Bias

Some respondents can’t answers questions because they don’t have experience or reference points with a subject.

Yet some respondents try to answer. If respondents don’t have experience with a product category, their answers may be misinformed.

Interview respondents with experience in the subject of interest, when moderating qualitative research.

Question Order Bias

Question order can bias. Minimize question order bias in qualitative research:


  • general questions before specific questions
  • unaided before aided questions
  • positive questions before negative questions
  • behavior questions before attitude questions

Ordering your topics, questions and activities needs some judgment. Ask yourself if the order sequence causes bias. Change the sequence. See what makes sense.

Biased Answers

A biased answer is an untrue or partially true statement. Bias influences and skews answers, masking truth.

An untrue statement can be intentional or unintentional. It doesn’t matter; it is bias. And it happens for various reasons.

Biased answers are common; be on guard for them.

Here are common types of biased answers seen in qualitative research.

Consistency Bias

Respondents try to appear consistent in their answers. A person’s previous statement influences later statements, even though one of the statements may be untrue.

If an answer does not seem right, ask for clarification.

Dominant Respondent Bias

In a focus group, dominant respondents appear occasionally. They can influence other respondents. Dominant respondents’ will dominate talk time, vocalizing their knowledge, expertise, energy, attractiveness, and charisma to make them dominant.

Keep dominant respondents in check. Make sure other respondents get equal talk time.

Error Bias

Respondents are not always right. Sometimes they make mistakes. Memories fade and people forget.

Crosscheck data.

Hostility Bias

Some respondents may be angry with the moderator or sponsor, and provide negative responses.

Keep your cool. Continue to ask questions. If hostility persists, break off the interview.

Moderator Acceptance Bias

Some respondents provide answers to please the moderator. Respondents interpret what they believe the moderator wants to hear and their answers may be false.

If answers don’t ring true, challenge them in a friendly way. Don’t reveal too much about yourself.

Mood Bias

When respondents are in an extreme mood state, they may provide answers that reflect their mood.

Angry people or pessimists provide angry or pessimistic answers. Busy executives may provide short, curt, harried answers.

Check for mood state and assess answers.

Overstatement Bias

Sometimes respondents overstate their intentions or opinions. It happens in concept-testing focus groups. Respondents overstate buying intent.

Recognize and judge overstatement.

Reference Bias (order bias)

Respondents develop a frame of reference from a previous question, discussion, activity, or thought.

They carry the reference to the next question, which biases answers.

The sequence of topics, questions, and activities produce reference bias.

Reduce reference bias by logically ordering questions, topics, and activities in qualitative research.

Concept Test Bias

Concept tests pose an interesting reference bias problem in focus groups.

In focus group concept tests, ask respondents to write down reactions to concept statements before talking about them. It minimizes respondents from influencing each other about a concept.

Also, if you introduce concept statements after one hour of discussion, you will get biased reactions to the concept. Respondents have already stated their opinions about the general topic and influenced one another.

With depth interviews, introducing concepts late in the interview produces bias. The moderator’s early questions and the respondent’s answers influence concept reactions.

You want to run your concept test when the depth interview or focus group starts. Introduce concept statements after the interview introduction.

Sensitivity Bias

Questions may raise sensitive subjects, about which respondents would rather not talk. Respondents may give false answers to hide secrets.

You need to build trust here. People will talk to others they like and trust. Use projective techniques and indirect questions in qualitative marketing research.

Social Acceptance Bias

Respondents provide socially acceptable answers that may be false.

People say what is socially acceptable, even though they may feel or think something else. They may twist the truth, or offer half-truths.

For example, not many respondents tell you directly that they seek power, social status, or are envious because of their insecurities.

Most people want to conform to their group.

Challenge answers tactfully. Use projective techniques or indirect questions that deal with socially sensitive subjects.

Sponsor Bias

When respondents know who is sponsoring the research, their feelings and opinions about the sponsor may bias answers.

Purchase managers shift into negotiating mode when they know the sponsor.

Don’t reveal the name of the sponsor. Keep your studies blind as long as you can in qualitative research.

Biased Sample

A sample is a subgroup or segment of respondents you interview.

A biased sample consists of respondents who don’t represent the group of interest. You interview the wrong people.

Poor screening and recruiting causes biased samples. Screen in respondents you want; screen out those who don’t fit. Random sampling during recruiting reduces sample bias.

Professional respondents also cause sample bias. They typically show up in consumer focus groups. Their goal is to earn a part-time salary from focus group and survey incentives.

Ask your focus group recruiter to guarantee they are not recruiting professional respondents. Check respondents’ photo identification when they show up.

Listen for answers, or a lack of answers. If answers are shallow, or don’t seem right, tell your recruiter. Develop a sixth sense for professional respondents in consumer research. They bias the sample and waste time and money.

Strive to keep your sample is bias free. Screen in the respondents you want. You want a sample that represents your target segment, in qualitative marketing research.

Biased Reporting

Moderators and analysts sometimes produce bias when reporting the results of qualitative research.

They can’t help it. Keeping an open mind requires extraordinary discipline.

Experiences, beliefs, feelings, wishes, attitudes, culture, views, state of mind, reference, error, and personality can bias analysis and reporting.

The conscious and subconscious are at work. Moderators and analysts are human.

Strive for objectivity as best you can. Keep your mind open.

More than one analyst helps. Get a couple of people to analyze the data. You’ll get different perspectives. If you subconsciously skew reporting, another analyst may spot it.

Reduce Bias in Qualitative Research

Bias distorts results, and affects decisions.

In qualitative research, reduce bias whenever you can.

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