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Being ‘outed’ by stealth: the uncomfortable disclosure of personal information via surveys

September 6, 2011
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Researchers collect demographic information (population characteristics) from respondents to check that their sample is representative of a given population, and to segment the findings to see whether different groups of people react differently to questions than others.  This means that any demographic information that you give a researcher will be analysed along with 50+ others (usually many more!) and will not be looked at separately.  Refusing to provide demographic information limits the value of a person’s input into a survey because their responses cannot be segmented.  Unfortunately, and understandably, many people are reluctant to give away their personal information because they worry about what might be done with it, and they worry that it might be used to sell them things.    I explain why you don’t need to worry about this in my recent blog post 5 reasons why researchers are not as bad as you think.

Anyway, there are other reasons people don’t like to provide demographic information or find it difficult to give an honest response to demographic questions.  I’m going to call this ‘being outed’ in a survey.  ‘Coming out of the closet’ is the term used by the gay community for disclosing their sexual orientation for the first time and being ‘outed’ is the deliberate or accidental disclosure of someone’s sexual orientation without their consent.

By my definition ‘being outed in a survey’ applies to the uncomfortable disclosure of any kind of personal information through participating in a survey. 

This happens in a number of ways:

  • Sometimes questions are asked in such a way that respondents feel they have to put themselves into artificial categories that they would never usually identify with,
  • Sometimes respondents feel they have to tell us something that they have not told anyone else before. 

In these situations respondents are being ‘outed’ by stealth in a survey situation where they ought to feel ‘safe’, and although probably unintentional this is inethical.

The following examples demonstrate how demographic questions might accidentally ‘out’ a respondent, or alternatively prompt them to give an ‘incorrect’ response that they are more comfortable with than stating the ‘truth’.

How we might ‘out’ people around gender:

  • Gender may not be a binary response (male or female) for people who are transgender or intersex.

How we might ‘out’ people around age:

  • People might routinely lie about their age (saying they are older or younger!) or feel ashamed to tell people their age.
  • People don’t like to think they fall into the oldest or the youngest categories. 
  • People don’t like to be lumped into the same category as others with very different ages (i.e. 25 year olds with 44 year olds in the age category 25-44). 

How we might ‘out’ people around ethnic group:

  • Question wording often confusingly mixes skin colour, country of origin, country of residence, and nationality.
  • Some people prefer to define their ethnicity based on where they were born, and others prefer to define their ethnicity based on where their family originated from (i.e. the same person could say they were ‘British’, ‘Asian’ or ‘British Asian’)
  • Sometimes nationality can be political (i.e. whether you say you are Scottish or British in Scotland)
  • Some people have dual citizenship.
  • In practice you need to include a *lot* of categories to allow everyone to self define their ethnicity.

How we might ‘out’ people around sexual orientation:

  • Some people prefer not to classify their sexual orientation at all.
  • For some people sexual orientation is fluid and changing.
  • Some people may identify with a particular sexual orientation which they are not currently ‘practicing’.
  • People who are married to a person of the opposite sex, or people who are in a civil partnership with a person of the same sex, may be bisexual.
  • Some people may not have ever told anyone about their sexual orientation before.

How we might ‘out’ people around disability:

  • Some people with impairments do not consider themselves to be disabled.
  • Some people who are not legally defined to be disabled will consider themselves to be disabled.
  • Some people have ‘invisible disabilities’ (such as mental health problems).
  • Some people may not have ever told anyone about their disabilities before.

How people define themselves is more important than what a researcher would define them as, after all this is the ‘personal truth’ through which they live their lives.  As researchers we need to make sure that respondents feel comfortable to answer questions as fully and honestly as they can and that we give them the opportunity to do so in an inclusive way.

Top tips for encouraging full and honest response to demographic questions

  • Consider question wording very carefully to ensure it is inclusive and allows people to define themselves comfortably.
  • Use a self completion demographic section so that the respondent doesn’t need to give answers directly to an interviewer.
  • Put the demographic section at the end, so that the respondent is not worried about the content of the survey and its legitimacy as they have already completed it.
  • Describe any professional credentials (i.e. Market Research Society membership) and why this means that data and anonymity is protected
  • Tell respondents what you will use their data for.
  • Tell respondents that you won’t link their demographics to their contact details.
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