Response Style Differences in Cross-National Research: Dispositional and Situational Determinants

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* International Management researchers often rely on surveys to collect their data. However, responses to survey questions can be biased by response styles, a respondent's tendency to provide a systematic response to questions regardless of their content. Response styles vary across countries and individuals, but there is limited systematic research that investigates why they vary.

* Our study investigates middle (MRS) versus extreme response styles (ERS), the tendency to use the middle or extreme categories on rating scales. We examine the impact of culture, different types of scale anchors and the level of knowledge of the topic in question on MRS and ERS.

* We asked five groups of respondents (Chinese in China, Chinese in Australia, Anglo-Australians in Australia, and two groups of German students in Germany) to indicate on a 10-point scale whether certain employee attitudes or behaviour were more typically Australian (left-hand of the scale) or Chinese (right-hand of the scale). We then asked them how they would rate the performance (low to high on a 10-point scale) of an employee who displayed this attitude or behaviour.

* Asian respondents showed higher MRS than Western respondents. When scale anchors referred to naturally opposing and mutually exclusive constructs (Australian versus Chinese) respondents showed more ERS than when they referred to level or degree of a construct (low-high performance). Knowledge of cross national differences resulted in higher ERS on behavioural questions but not on performance questions.

Keywords: Response styles. Survey research * Culture * China * Australia * Germany


Researchers in the field of International Management use a wide variety of research methods. Two of the most frequently used methods and data sources are survey research or the use of secondary data, in itself often based on surveys conducted in the past (see e.g. Buckley et al.'s. (2007) review of studies on FDI location choice). Researchers would normally assume that responses to questionnaire surveys are only based on the substantive meaning of the questions involved. This might be true for surveys that deal with issues that can be measured objectively, such as for instance the classification of a subsidiary as greenfield establishment or acquisition. However, there are many types of questions where respondents may display a bias in their responses.

These biases could include a consistency bias, i.e. the respondents' desire to be seen as consistent by the researcher, which may lead them to respond in accordance with a presumed underlying relationship, for instance the assumption that certain practices should lead to high performance. It could also refer to social desirability bias, the tendency to respond in a way that is seen as socially desirable. This can be expected to be especially relevant in questions that are for instance dealing with ethics or corporate social responsibility. Researchers will also find that questions relating to firm performance, when measured subjectively with Likert scales using low/high or below/above average anchors, often lead most respondents to score their performance above average.

However, there is another type of bias--response style bias--that can be invoked with any types of surveys that contain Likert-scale questions, which ask respondents to rate their opinions and attitudes. These questions could relate to individual cultural values or norms, but also to the respondent's assessment of the company's international strategy or the subsidiary's role. Response style bias is rather unique in that it is not dependent on the content of the question. The term 'response style' refers to a respondent's tendency to provide a systematic response to questionnaire items regardless of their content (Baumgartner and Steenkamp 2001). The most common response styles are acquiescence (ARS) or disacquiescence (DRS); that is, the tendency to agree or disagree with an item regardless of the content, and extreme response styles (ERS) versus middle response styles (MRS); that is, the tendency to use the extreme or middle response categories on ratings scales (Harzing 2006). …


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