Category Archives: Open-ended questions

Open-ended Survey Questions: Non-response Bias

You can’t make everyone happy.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen outcome data for a CME activity that didn’t include at least one harsh comment in the open-ended feedback section.  Although in the minority, something about these comments make them feel particularly weighty.  Maybe it’s because someone actually took the time to write something down – as opposed to simply checking boxes on an evaluation form.  When you find yourself (or a sponsor) particularly affected by such comments, consider the following…

One consideration in the interpretation of survey data is non-response bias.  Non-response bias is the possibility that individuals responding to a survey differ from non-respondents in a way that limits the generalizability of survey data to the overall CME participant population being evaluated.  Generally speaking, the lower the survey response, the greater the potential for non-response bias.  For example, a CME evaluation survey with a 20% response rate is less likely to be representative of the overall CME participants than a survey with a 40% response rate. The concern is that the 20% who choose to complete the survey are unique in some way that creates a bias in the data.  The higher the response rate, the less likely survey respondents are distinct from the overall population of CME participants.

Open-ended questions are particularly susceptible to non-response bias. Even when someone elects to respond to a survey, research has shown that these respondents complete open-ended questions less than 40% of the time (Borg, 2005; Poncheri et al., 2008; Siem, 2005).  So even if survey respondents are deemed representative of the overall population (for example, based on a demographic comparison between respondents and the overall population), the subgroup of survey respondents who complete the open-ended questions may differ enough to introduce bias.

So do respondents who complete open-ended questions differ from non-respondents? Research has shown that survey respondents with lower satisfaction are more likely to respond to open-ended questions than satisfied respondents (McNeely, 1990; Poncheri et al. 2008).  This is supported by the general psychological phenomenon that dissatisfied individuals are more likely to consider the causes of their dissatisfaction than satisfied individuals are to consider the source of their satisfaction – accordingly, satisfied individuals will have less to communicate than dissatisfied individuals when asked to provide comments (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001; Peeters, 1971; Harman-Poncheri, R, 2008).

By focusing on open-ended comments in CME evaluation surveys, we may be drawing conclusions based only on the least satisfied respondents (which are likely a minority of the overall CME participants).  Although such feedback is still valuable in the identification of areas of improvement, assuming such feedback is reflective of the whole would likely skew our perception of how CME participants really feel about their CME experience.


  • Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, D. K. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
  • Borg, I. (2005, April). Who writes what kinds of comments? Some new findings. In A. I. Kraut (Chair), Grappling with write-in comments in a web-enabled survey world. Symposium conducted at the 20th annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Los Angeles, California.
  • Harman-Poncheri, R. Understanding Survey Comment Nonresponse and the Characteristics of Nonresponders. Dissertation, North Carolina State University, 2008.
  • McNeely, R. L. (1990). Do respondents who pen comments onto mail surveys differ from other respondents? A research note on the human services job satisfaction literature. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 17(4), 127-137.
  • Peeters, G. (1971). The positive-negative asymmetry: On cognitive consistency and positivity bias. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 455-474.
  • Poncheri, R. M., Lindberg, J. T., Thompson, L. F., & Surface, E. A. (2008). A comment on employee surveys: Negativity bias in open-ended responses. Organizational Research Methods, 11, 614-630.
  • Siem (2005, April). History of survey comments at the Boeing Company. In K. J. Fenlason (Chair), Comments: Where have we been? Where are we going? Symposium conducted at the 20th annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Los Angeles, California.

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Filed under Bias, CME, Open-ended questions, Response rates, Survey