Should you pay the poor to answer your surveys?

A reader about to run a large survey in Africa asks:

I’m inexperienced here, but a few professors debated the pros for payments:

  • we’re taking a big chunk of these folks’ time (there is an opp. cost to participation)
  • they probably expect it (apparently it has become rather common in Tanzania)

And the cons:

  • they’ll pay attention less (and give us worse information?)
  • participating for the wrong reason
  • we’ll be re-enforcing the standard that participants will be paid

Another thought was giving sugar or a meal to participants.

Good questions. I’ve struggled with this myself. I have three thoughts.

First, it seems to me that the concerns about worse attention or information, and the impacts on participation, are testable. Can I persuade you to do the randomized survey experiment?

Second, the biggest risk to me is the externality: you paying means everybody else must start paying. Personally I think researchers ought to compensate poor subjects for two hours of their time, but none of us has the authority to make that decision for all.

Third, I do neither. No one gets paid for my surveys. But no one goes away empty-handed. We play games for money. Risk games, cognitive games, executive function tests, public goods, or impulse control exercises–depending on the project and question. They walk away with a minimum of a dollar or two, and sometimes more, and have fun at the same time. I walk away with some unique data.