Response Set in Psychology: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 What Is a Response Set?
  • 2:00 Types of Response Sets
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

In this lesson, learn about a response set in psychology. Explore the different types of response sets and situations in which they are likely to occur.

What is a Response Set?

Suppose that you are interested in researching cheating among college students. You create a three-item survey and give it to 300 college students at a local university. The students are provided with three statements. They are asked to look at each statement and rate themselves on a scale from 1 (never) to 5 (more than twice in the past semester). The items on the survey are:

  • I have purchased or stolen an assignment that I did not complete and handed it in as my work.
  • I have copied homework assignments from my classmates.
  • I have cheated on a quiz or test.

Once you collect and analyze the surveys, you find that almost all of the students rated themselves at 1 on all three questions. None of the students rated themselves higher than a 3 (once in the past school year). You talk to the school officials and find that over 20% of the students have been caught cheating on an assignment or quiz in the past year. This is not what you expected, given that a majority of the students said that they have never cheated.

In this example, your survey responses are not an accurate representation of cheating behaviors at the university due to response set, which is the tendency for a person to respond to questions or statements in such a way that it produces a certain image of the respondent, rather than answering based on the respondent's true feelings or behaviors. Response sets may occur because a person is purposefully trying to be deceitful, or they may be unintentional. Response sets depend upon the situation and are usually temporary.

For example, being asked about your cheating behaviors at your university is a very stressful experience, especially if you have cheated in the past and have not been caught. If students admitted that they cheated, they could very well subject themselves to a number of penalties, including expulsion. In a risky, high-stakes situation such as this, it is not uncommon for a response set to occur.

Types of Response Sets

There are generally five types of response sets. They are:

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