Last Updated May 28, 2010 4:45 AM EDT
In the restaurant example, the bias could be eliminated if the surveyor first asked about the service, allowing the customer to vent before going on to discuss the food. "But you can never anticipate and ask all the questions a customer might want to answer," Rucker says. Luckily, you don't have to.
In a series of experiments, study participants read various scenarios and were asked to assess the people and businesses described in each. For example, they read about the actions of one "moral" and one "immoral" candy company -- the former donated toys to needy tots and the latter marketed cigarettes to middle schoolers. Next, they were asked to rate the quality of the company's candy based on photographs.
The researchers were not surprised to find that the moral company's candy enjoyed a higher quality rating. Yet another crucial finding did come as a shock. When study participants were told that they would have the opportunity to "provide any additional open-ended thoughts or comments," the bias against the immoral company's candy vanished. That is, as long as the test subjects knew they would have the chance to speak their minds, they could view the candy objectively.
"Studies like this are usually good at identifying problems," Rucker says. "What's cool about this one is that it also offers a solution." The next time you survey your customers, make sure to tell them you want to hear it all -- even the answers to questions you don't yet know to ask.