Simon Fraser University

Harnessing Internet's survey power

Apr 04, 2002 , vol. 23, no. 7

By Carol Thorbes
If you're a member of Simon Fraser
University's campus email community, you can win $100 by participating in an anonymous, web-based psychological research survey. A random draw for the winner will be held on April 15.

Enticing web-based surveys are now a common research tool in the corporate world. At SFU, for the first time, psychology researchers are harnessing the Internet's power to survey people anonymously, quickly and widely.

SFU fourth year psychology undergraduate Diane Lines recently authored an online survey of people's counterfactual thinking patterns in intimate relationships.

Counterfactual thinking is the process of ruminating over what might or might not have been if alternate courses of action had been taken. Lines is a student of SFU social psychologist Neal Roese who is studying several aspects of counterfactual thinking.

Lines approached Roese about doing a web-based survey as a self-directed studies project, two semesters ago. Off campus, Lines collects data for an organizational psychologist. Her job introduced her to the potential benefits of web-based surveying.

“Our SFU survey is available on the web 24 hours a day and can be filled in from anywhere,” explains Lines. “It has the potential to attract a broader demographic than conventional research sampling in psychology.”

Lines notes participants traditionally fill out hard copy surveys in a lab setting. Such a setting often attracts more first and second year graduates looking to earn a credit by participating than faculty and staff.

With web-based surveying, Lines also doesn't have to expend time inputting respondents' answers into a computer.

The survey, which began March 2 has already attracted more than 100 participants, without advertising. The goal was 60.

“Respondents tend to be more open and honest when they're not dealing with researchers face-to-face and they can quit the survey at anytime,” says Roese.

This makes for more meaningful results. They will enable my research to build on psychologists' knowledge of the thought processes and emotions that influence the course of close relationships.”

Lines turned to Richard Blackwell to transform her original hardcopy survey on counterfactual thinking into a web-based document.

A programmer analyst for 15 years in SFU's psychology department, Blackwell has mounted web-based systems for research participation, reservation and credit distribution in his department.

Those projects gave him the experience he needed to iron out kinks encountered in mounting Diane's web-based survey.

“I had to ensure the anonymity of the participants and find a way of obtaining their informed consent to answering questions. Since I couldn't obtain their handwritten signatures, I used their email addresses as a means of verifying their consent to participate,” says Blackwell.

Participants' on-line responses are written into databases on a secured server, which can only be accessed by database administrators.

Lines receives two files: one containing the survey responses; the other containing the participants' email addresses. The two files can't be linked. The restriction of participants to people with SFU email addresses has posed one hurdle Blackwell is still trying to overcome.

If you are currently in a relationship and would like to participate in the survey, log onto the website here.