9.1 Overview of Survey Research

Learning Objectives

  1. Define what survey research is, including its two important characteristics.
  2. Describe several different ways that survey research can be used and give some examples.

What Is Survey Research?

Survey research is a quantitative approach that has two important characteristics. First, the variables of interest are measured using self-reports. In essence, survey researchers ask their participants (who are often called respondents in survey research) to report directly on their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Second, considerable attention is paid to the issue of sampling. In particular, survey researchers have a strong preference for large random samples because they provide the most accurate estimates of what is true in the population. In fact, survey research may be the only approach in psychology in which random sampling is routinely used. Beyond these two characteristics, almost anything goes in survey research. Surveys can be long or short. They can be conducted in person, by telephone, through the mail, or over the Internet. They can be about voting intentions, consumer preferences, social attitudes, health, or anything else that it is possible to ask people about and receive meaningful answers.

Most survey research is nonexperimental. It is used to describe single variables (e.g., the percentage of voters who prefer one presidential candidate or another, the prevalence of schizophrenia in the general population) and also to assess statistical relationships between variables (e.g., the relationship between income and health). But surveys can also be experimental. The study by Lerner and her colleagues is a good example. Their use of self-report measures and a large national sample identifies their work as survey research. But their manipulation of an independent variable (anger vs. fear) to assess its effect on a dependent variable (risk judgments) also identifies their work as experimental.

History and Uses of Survey Research

Survey research may have its roots in English and American “social surveys” conducted around the turn of the 20th century by researchers and reformers who wanted to document the extent of social problems such as poverty (Converse, 1987). By the 1930s, the US government was conducting surveys to document economic and social conditions in the country. The need to draw conclusions about the entire population helped spur advances in sampling procedures. At about the same time, several researchers who had already made a name for themselves in market research, studying consumer preferences for American businesses, turned their attention to election polling. A watershed event was the presidential election of 1936 between Alf Landon and Franklin Roosevelt. A magazine called Literary Digest conducted a survey by sending ballots (which were also subscription requests) to millions of Americans. Based on this “straw poll,” the editors predicted that Landon would win in a landslide. At the same time, the new pollsters were using scientific methods with much smaller samples to predict just the opposite—that Roosevelt would win in a landslide. In fact, one of them, George Gallup, publicly criticized the methods of Literary Digest before the election and all but guaranteed that his prediction would be correct. And of course it was. (We will consider the reasons that Gallup was right later in this chapter.)

From market research and election polling, survey research made its way into several academic fields, including political science, sociology, and public health—where it continues to be one of the primary approaches to collecting new data. Beginning in the 1930s, psychologists made important advances in questionnaire design, including techniques that are still used today, such as the Likert scale. (See “What Is a Likert Scale?” in Section 9.2 “Constructing Survey Questionnaires”.) Survey research has a strong historical association with the social psychological study of attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudice. Early attitude researchers were also among the first psychologists to seek larger and more diverse samples than the convenience samples of college students that were routinely used in psychology (and still are).

Survey research continues to be important in psychology today. For example, survey data have been instrumental in estimating the prevalence of various mental disorders and identifying statistical relationships among those disorders and with various other factors. The National Comorbidity Survey is a large-scale mental health survey conducted in the United States (see http://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs). In just one part of this survey, nearly 10,000 adults were given a structured mental health interview in their homes in 2002 and 2003. Table 9.1 “Some Lifetime Prevalence Results From the National Comorbidity Survey” presents results on the lifetime prevalence of some anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders. (Lifetime prevalence is the percentage of the population that develops the problem sometime in their lifetime.) Obviously, this kind of information can be of great use both to basic researchers seeking to understand the causes and correlates of mental disorders and also to clinicians and policymakers who need to understand exactly how common these disorders are.

Table 9.1 Some Lifetime Prevalence Results From the National Comorbidity Survey

Lifetime prevalence*
Disorder Total Female Male
Generalized anxiety disorder 5.7 7.1 4.2
Obsessive-compulsive disorder 2.3 3.1 1.6
Major depressive disorder 16.9 20.2 13.2
Bipolar disorder 4.4 4.5 4.3
Alcohol abuse 13.2 7.5 19.6
Drug abuse 8.0 4.8 11.6
*The lifetime prevalence of a disorder is the percentage of people in the population that develop that disorder at any time in their lives.

And as the opening example makes clear, survey research can even be used to conduct experiments to test specific hypotheses about causal relationships between variables. Such studies, when conducted on large and diverse samples, can be a useful supplement to laboratory studies conducted on college students. Although this is not a typical use of survey research, it certainly illustrates the flexibility of this approach.

Key Takeaways

  • Survey research is a quantitative approach that features the use of self-report measures on carefully selected samples. It is a flexible approach that can be used to study a wide variety of basic and applied research questions.
  • Survey research has its roots in applied social research, market research, and election polling. It has since become an important approach in many academic disciplines, including political science, sociology, public health, and, of course, psychology.


  1. Discussion: Think of a question that each of the following professionals might try to answer using survey research.

    1. a social psychologist
    2. an educational researcher
    3. a market researcher who works for a supermarket chain
    4. the mayor of a large city
    5. the head of a university police force


Converse, J. M. (1987). Survey research in the United States: Roots and emergence, 1890–1960. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


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