How to ask sensitive survey questions effectively: tips and strategies


By Vishal Bhat, Program Manager

Surveys are an effective way to gather valuable data and insights from a group of people. However, some survey questions may touch on sensitive topics, and require additional care. 

Sensitive content in online surveys requires a delicate balance between obtaining necessary information and respecting participants’ privacy and effort levels – Jimmy Snyder, VP of Trust and Safety, Cint

Jimmy believes sensitive questions can make survey respondents uncomfortable or defensive, leading to inaccurate responses and unreliable data. Therefore, it is important to approach these types of survey questions with sensitivity and care.

In this article, we will discuss some tips on how to ask sensitive survey questions effectively. 

The first step is to identify when a topic is sensitive. Sensitive topics might include surveys that ask questions about:  

  • Personal beliefs  
  • Experiences 
  • Demographic information 
  • Racial or ethnic origin (in some countries) 
  • Political opinions 
  • Religion or philosophical beliefs 
  • Trade-union membership 
  • Genetic or biometric data 
  • Health or sexual lifestyle 
  • Gender identity 
  • Mental health 
  • Drug use

Define the purpose and scope of the survey 

Before you start drafting your survey questions, it is essential to define the purpose and scope of your survey. What do you hope to achieve by conducting the survey? What specific information do you need to gather? What is the target audience, and what are their demographics and characteristics? By answering these questions, you can identify the sensitive topics that may arise and design appropriate questions that will yield relevant and accurate data.  

Ensure a disclaimer is included in the beginning of the questionnaire and contains the below points: 

1. Purpose of research 

Example: Suppose a research project aims to explore the psychological effects of graphic violence in media on children and adolescents. In this case, a clear purpose statement could be: 

“The purpose of this research is to investigate the psychological impact of graphic violence in media on children and adolescents, with the objective of identifying potential risks, protective factors, and strategies for promoting healthy media consumption habits.” 

By defining this purpose, the researchers can focus their investigation on understanding specific aspects such as the potential harm caused by graphic violence, identifying factors that might mitigate the negative effects, and ultimately providing recommendations for fostering healthy media habits among young individuals. 

2. Consent 

When collecting a respondent’s consent, a ‘prefer not to answer’ option should always be included in your targeting questions. If respondents feel uncomfortable with the research topic and its purpose, they can choose to opt out of the survey by selecting ‘prefer not to answer.’  

Use clear and non-judgmental language 

When drafting your survey questions, it is crucial to use clear and non-judgmental language. Avoid using jargon, technical terms, or slang that may confuse or offend respondents. Use simple and straightforward language that everyone can understand. Be neutral and non-biased in your tone and avoid asking leading questions that may influence the respondent’s answer. 

Here’s an example of how to use clear and non-judgmental language when asking about potentially sensitive content in market research surveys: 

Sensitive Topic: Smoking Habits 

Original Statement (Judgmental):
“It’s really unhealthy and irresponsible to smoke. Why would anyone do that?” 

Revised Statement (Clear and Non-Judgmental):
“We would like to understand the reasons why some individuals choose to smoke and the factors that influence their smoking habits.

In the revised statement, the language is clear and avoids any judgment or bias towards smoking. Instead of expressing a negative opinion, it focuses on the objective goal of understanding the reasons behind smoking habits and the factors that contribute to them. This approach allows for unbiased data collection and encourages participants to share their experiences without feeling judged or criticized

Provide context and options for answers 

Sensitive survey questions may require additional context to help respondents understand the question’s intent and scope. Therefore, it is essential to provide context or background information when asking a sensitive question. For example, if you are asking about the respondent’s religious affiliation, you could provide a brief definition of different religions to ensure the respondent understands the question’s intent. 

Moreover, providing a range of answer options can help respondents feel more comfortable and confident in their responses. Providing answer options can help respondents feel that their answers are not unique or rare, which may encourage them to provide more honest and accurate responses. 

Consider anonymity and confidentiality 

Sensitive survey questions may make some respondents feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, so it is essential to consider anonymity and confidentiality when designing your survey. Consider whether your survey should be anonymous or confidential and communicate this clearly to respondents. Anonymity means that no identifying information is collected, whereas confidentiality means that the respondent’s identity is known but kept private. 

Pre-test your survey 

Before launching your survey, it is essential to pre-test it with a small sample of your target audience. This will help you identify any problematic or unclear questions and make necessary adjustments before launching the survey to a larger audience. Testing your survey can also help you gauge the tone and level of sensitivity in your questions and make appropriate modifications if necessary. 

In conclusion, asking sensitive survey questions requires careful planning, preparation, and consideration. By following the tips above, you can design and execute a survey that yields valuable and accurate data without making respondents feel uncomfortable or defensive. Remember to communicate clearly, provide context and options for answers, consider anonymity and confidentiality, and pre-test your survey to ensure its effectiveness.