Can biology predict how survey respondents will react to certain questions, topics or scenarios when conducting surveys? The answer is yes according to new research from UC MercedResearchers found that people are biologically predisposed to certain feelings and views towards society and politics. And these feelings impact the way they interpret and respond to survey questions. 

To conduct their study, UC Merced researchers captured baseline physiological reactions to a series of pictures for 200 participants. These baselines established the types of images that caused participants to feel stressed and the types of images that had a calming impact. The baselines were measured using the skin-conductance response, which is taken through the sweat glands in participants’ fingers.

Participants were then asked about a wide range of topics impacting society including gun control, immigration, Ebola and gay marriage. Each topic was framed to participants in different ways. One scenario asked them to consider whether they would allow the KKK to come to campus for a rally. Some participants saw this as free speech while others saw it as a public safety issue.

Understanding a participant’s baseline physiological reaction to stresses helped researchers predict who would have different reactions to the questions and topics raised. Some people can be persuaded more than others just because of their biology, while others are less impacted by stress and less likely to change their positions. Using the KKK example, those who were physiologically highly sensitive to stress were more likely to be persuaded by the safety concerns raised by the KKK rally than those who were less sensitive to stress.

So, what does this mean for market researchers? If we better understand how things like biological reaction- something people can’t change about themselves – is behind their opinions, it can help us to interpret results. Participants will have a physiological reaction to how questions are framed and the topics raised in a survey that is out of their control.