Incentives in Market Research: How much is too much?

Incentives are a commonplace method for recruiting research participants and encouraging them to provide high-quality feedback. In qualitative research, incentive amounts vary widely depending on the time commitment, the value of a respondent’s time, the difficulty of the tasks, whether respondents must travel for on-site participation, etc.

However, some worry that incentives could have the opposite of the intended effect, decreasing the quality of research participation and damaging the validity of findings. One line of thought is that large financial incentives for participation may appear coercive. They may lead participants to:

  1. Believe that the research involves risk (i.e., “They would never pay me so much if there was no risk”) or;
  2. Believe they should offer opinions that are “demanded” by the researcher (i.e., “I’ll tell them what they want to hear”). 

On the first point, recent studies show, in the context of social science research, that larger incentives do not lead participants to accept greater personal risk than they otherwise would. In the context of biomedical research, however, larger incentives have been shown to increase perceptions of riskiness and the amount of time participants spend reading about the potential risks of the research. These findings highlight the importance of informed consent. When a participant engages in any activity that involves little to no risk to them personally (e.g., responding to a de-identified questionnaire online, providing feedback on a product), it may be important to highlight that the purpose of the research is simply to learn about people’s opinions so that any incentive is not perceived to imply excessive risk.

On the second point, social scientists often find that worrying over whether a participant will tell a researcher what they want to hear is overblown. Even when participants are explicitly told what the goal of a research agenda is, the differences in how participants behave are minimal. Yet this should not be interpreted to mean that financial incentives could never change the behaviors of those taking a survey or participating in a focus group. In certain situations where the respondents may suspect the purpose of the research, interact directly with the researchers, and feel an obligation due to financial incentives, there remains a concern about response quality. Again, this highlights the need for the informed consent process to reiterate the non-contingent nature of incentives to participate and encourage honest responses in a non-judgmental environment. It also suggests that, when possible, respondents should not be made aware of what the researcher would view as a “desired” response.

Overall, there is a large body of scholarly work showing that incentives can enhance the quality of both qualitative and quantitative research. The question of how much respondents should be compensated is largely dependent on the nature of the work respondents are being asked to complete and the budget of the researcher. Yet there is little risk in overpaying respondents. To the extent that excessive incentives create a risk to the validity of a research agenda, these risks can be largely mitigated through informed consent and research designs that minimize the potential for coercion and bias.