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Volunteer bias is an important concept to understand for anyone who conducts or reads psychological research.

This lesson offers an overview of volunteer bias and why it must be acknowledged.

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What Is Volunteer Bias?

Liza is a doctoral student in psychology. In preparing to do research for her dissertation, Liza has run up against a number of problems with volunteer bias. She understands that volunteer bias is the concept that people who volunteer to participate in research studies have some different characteristics, privileges, and lifestyles from those who do not volunteer.

Therefore, research that aims to generalize, or rely on one sample to predict facts about a broader population, may draw inaccurate conclusions.For example, Liza is researching people’s ideas about power dynamics in relationships. The first phase of her research involves collecting data from surveys. Liza notices that her survey results indicate that most people feel very empowered in their relationships. She is surprised by this result and wonders if it might indicate some problems with her sample. Liza’s advisor suggests she think closely about volunteer bias.

Could it be that people who volunteer to take surveys and return them happen to be people who feel more empowered? Liza grows interested in this phenomenon and decides to learn more about volunteer bias.

Who Gets Included?

Liza begins her investigation by learning about what sorts of people get included in research studies because of volunteer bias. After reading conceptual and methodological results, she comes to an understanding that the following categories of people are more likely to be included:

People who are relatively socioeconomically privileged

Answering surveys requires time, and it also requires a sense of trust in research, education, and even government.

People with more access to money, resources, and education are therefore more likely to answer many kinds of surveys.

People who have high energy and motivation levels

People whose personalities or temperaments lead them to have high energy levels, and be motivated in general, tend to answer surveys more frequently.

People with a vested interest in the topic being studied

In Liza’s study, for example, she gets more answers from people who have thought in the past about power and who have helped themselves feel empowered in relationships.

People who desire approval

Liza learns that people who want approval, or who desire to be thought of as good students, good citizens, and so on, are more likely to answer surveys and participate in research.

Who Gets Excluded?

If these are the kinds of people who are more likely to participate, Liza wonders who gets left out in studies that don’t watch carefully for volunteer bias.

People with fewer resources

People with less time, financial flexibility, or sense of trust in education and research are unlikely to volunteer for studies.

People who are disinterested in a particular topic

If someone finds a topic uninteresting, hard to understand, or irrelevant to his or her own life, that person is unlikely to participate in research.

People with low-key temperaments

People who are calmer or prone to being called lazy do not seek or need approval, and are unlikely to join groups. They are therefore less likely to participate in research studies.

Why It Matters

Liza grows passionate about the concept of volunteer bias and undertakes to explain to others in her cohort why it matters. Liza explains that volunteer bias has important implications for anyone conducting or reading psychological research. Research that relies on surveys, interviews, or any other kinds of active participation will be likely to present results that are more relevant to some portions of the general population than others. This means that researchers and consumers of research must be extremely cautious about the conclusions they draw.

Liza, for instance, cannot conclude from her survey that, overall, people experience high levels of power in their relationships. Rather, she can only conclude that people who are likely to participate in survey-oriented research are often the same people who feel empowered in their relationships. Conclusions that do not take the significance of volunteer bias into account are likely to leave out the very portions of the population that are already underrepresented in research.

Steps to Avoid Volunteer Bias

It is difficult to avoid volunteer bias altogether, but Liza explains that the most important way to avoid it is to design research methods that do not rely exclusively on volunteers. However, she acknowledges that this can be ethically tricky and suggests that her fellow students consult carefully with ethics review boards as they design their studies.

More importantly, Liza explains that when researchers report their findings, they must be honest and open about the potential hazards of volunteer bias so they do not draw erroneous or exclusive conclusions.

Lesson Summary

Volunteer bias is the idea that people who volunteer to participate in studies do not represent the general population. Researchers and consumers of research must watch carefully for volunteer bias so that they are not drawing flawed conclusions that leave out the less empowered or motivated portions of the population.

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