Giving Research Participants a Clue (& helping them be “better” participants)

As qualitative and quantitative researchers who explore the thinking and doing of human beings, we are nothing without the willing cooperation from our research participants. We pool them women said, woman listening to gossipinto a sample, then we contact them, we screen them, we coax them, we adhere to strict reminder protocols to motivate their interest and lure them into submission, and then… And then we are disappointed, bemused, and sometimes a bit angry at participants’ sub-par performance as actors in our research production (be it, for example, a focus group discussion or online survey). I have read lengthy discussions from researchers who describe their participants as “demons,” “lazy,” “cynics,” or “hostiles” because they have not paid their due respects to our quest for true knowledge but rather undermine our efforts by speaking too much or too critically in a focus group, or speeding through a survey questionnaire.

So, where the research participant was initially cajoled with assurances of their importance – “Your Opinion Counts!” – as well as our endearing gratitude for their cooperation, the participant is now literally “penalized” or subjugated to a “correction continuum” for their inappropriate response behavior. So much for love.

All of this begs the question of whether researchers expect more from their participants than is warranted. On the one hand, a research participant is recruited because he or she is “typical” of something; but, on the other hand, researchers do not want participants to be so typical as to disrupt the gathering of legitimate data. To deal with this, researchers often confront the problem by adjusting their questionnaire designs or utilizing moderating (or interviewing) techniques aimed at taming participants to conform to certain expectations (e.g., mixing positive-worded statements with negative statements on grid questions to counteract straightlining, or reiterating “ground rules” in group discussions to stifle participants who are too-whatever [too talkative, too shy, too critical]). These solutions, however, evade a more obvious approach – cluing the participant in on this thing called “research.”

For all of the pleading that goes into recruiting research participants, it might not be a bad idea to incorporate a little education or knowledge in the screening process so that participants have an appreciation for exactly what they are agreeing to do. So, in addition to emphasizing how “interesting” and even “fun” prospective participants will find our research, it may be equally important to clearly state the seriousness (if it is not “serious,” why bother?) of the research objective as well as an understanding of the response format and what participation in this format may require (e.g., in terms of time, thought, respect for others, candidness, etc.). In this way, the researcher enters into a form of partnership with the participant, with the participant taking on a supportive role to further the researcher’s goals.

Or, the researcher can live in angst after the fact. Relieved that their human “subjects” actually showed up to participate but now trying to figure out what to do with these pesky participants who simply acted “typical.”

One comment

  1. Researchers whose job it is to interact with people (and I’d like to emphasize the “people” part) as the focus of their jobs should know better than anyone that “users” or “participants” or [*shudder*] “subjects” are, in fact, human beings. They don’t turn off their humanity (in all its variety) just because they come into a research session.


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