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Survey: all about sensitive issues

Sensitive questions are a problem when it comes to surveys. They are synonymous with lower response rates and lead to larger margins of error. Therefore, it is essential to understand which questions may be sensitive and anticipate their consequences when designing your questionnaire. This article explains the different types of sensitive questions and gives you 113 examples.

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Survey: sensitive questions in brief

  • The presence of sensitive questions can negatively impact the quality of a survey. Nevertheless, including sensitive questions can be justified by the objective of the survey
  • There are 3 types of sensitive questions: they all lead to bias and, therefore, measurement errors
  • The response to a sensitive question may vary depending on the context in which it is asked. Therefore, the method of collecting survey responses (
  • CAWI, CATI, PAPI, etc.) influences the accuracy of the measurements.


mindmap of sensitive questions in surveys


Sensitive questions can be classified into 3 categories. You will find a “mindmap” above to get a more visual overview:

  • Invasion of privacy : these questions touch on taboo topics.
  • Disclosure risks : some questions may pose a risk to the person answering them honestly. This is particularly true of reprehensible behavior.
  • Social acceptability : human beings want to project an ideal image of themselves. Certain questions, which would undermine this image, can therefore be sensitive.

Let us now go into the details of these so-called sensitive issues.

Type 1: invasion of privacy

The first type corresponds to questions that represent an invasion of privacy. These are questions that the respondent perceives as intrusive. They touch on subjects that are considered taboo.

While some topics can almost universally be considered taboo (sex, drugs), others depend more on the survey context and the respondent. For example, one respondent might be much more sensitive to a question about religion or money than another. For example, German respondents are known to have much more difficulty with money issues than American respondents.

In the end, however, keep in mind that whether or not a respondent belongs to this first group of sensitive questions is mostly determined by the topic of the question.

Type 2: Disclosure risk

The second type corresponds to all questions representing risk in case of an “honest” answer. These questions relate to reprehensible behavior (criminal behavior, drug use, etc.). However, research shows that this risk also depends on the context. For example, a question about marijuana use may be sensitive to a teenager who knows that their parents will have access to the answers; it is not so sensitive if it is asked of a group of teenagers who hear each other’s answers.

Keep in mind, too, that respondents may not believe in the guarantees of confidentiality that a survey can offer. The resulting concerns can lead to response bias.

Type 3: Questions that address social desirability

The last type relates to questions that address concepts of social desirability. These are, therefore, questions that may lead to responses that are socially unacceptable or socially undesirable. There is, therefore, a strong relationship to underlying social norms. These must be clear.

The subjects that can fall into this category include civic duties (voting, citizenship, …) and social behavior (lying, mutual aid, …). The answers to this question depend strongly on the people who answer and their values.

Glossary: 113 sensitive questions in a survey

Sensitive survey questions may make respondents uncomfortable or reluctant to answer honestly because of the personal or sensitive nature of the topic. Examples include:

Income-related questions

  • What is your annual revenue?
  • How much do you earn per year before taxes?
  • What is your current salary?
  • What was your revenue last year?
  • What is the highest level of revenue you have earned in the last 5 years?
  • What is the value of your assets?
  • What is your household income?

Mental Health Questions

  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness or received treatment for a mental health problem?
  • Have you ever experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety?
  • Have you ever had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide?
  • Have you ever been hospitalized for a mental health problem?
  • Have you ever used drugs or alcohol to cope with mental health problems?
  • Have you ever been a victim of trauma or abuse?
  • Have you ever had a panic attack or anxiety attack?
  • Have you ever received advice or therapy for mental health problems?
  • Have you ever had a family member or loved one who has struggled with mental health issues?
  • Have you ever experienced stigma or discrimination because of your mental health condition?

Questions about substance use

  • Have you used any drugs (other than those prescribed to you) in the past month?
  • How often do you consume alcohol in a typical week?
  • Have you ever injected drugs?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a substance use disorder?
  • Have you ever been treated for a substance use disorder?
  • Have you ever sold drugs?
  • Have you ever driven a car or operated machinery while under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  • Have you ever used drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or emotional problems?
  • Have you ever been arrested for drug or alcohol-related offenses?
  • Have you ever experienced negative consequences from substance use, such as losing a job or damaging relationships?

Questions about sexual relationships and behaviors

  • How many sexual partners have you had in your life?
  • Have you ever cheated on a partner?
  • How often do you use drugs or alcohol before having sex?
  • Have you ever had unprotected sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  • Have you ever shared needles or other drug paraphernalia during sex?
  • Have you ever had sex with someone unable to consent due to intoxication or drug use?
  • Have you ever been sexually assaulted or coerced under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  • Have you ever traded sex for drugs or alcohol?

Questions about discrimination and harassment

  • Have you ever been discriminated against because of your race, gender, or sexual orientation?
  • Have you ever been sexually harassed or assaulted?
  • Have you ever been subjected to unwanted sexual comments or advances in the workplace?
  • Have you ever felt pressured to have sex in exchange for job opportunities?
  • Have you ever experienced discriminatory or harassing behavior based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics?
  • Have you ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe because of the behavior of a co-worker, supervisor, or authority?
  • Have you ever reported an incident of harassment or discrimination, and if so, how was it handled by your employer or appropriate authorities?

Criminal History Questions

  • Have you ever been arrested for a criminal offense (other than a minor traffic violation)?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
  • Have you ever been placed on probation or parole?
  • Have you ever spent time in a correctional facility, jail, or prison?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
  • Have you ever been convicted as a juvenile in a court of a criminal offense?
  • Have you ever been charged with a dismissed or not convicted crime?
  • Have you ever been involved in a domestic violence situation that resulted in a police report?
  • Have you ever been accused or charged with sexual misconduct?

Health Questions

  • Do you have any disability(ies)?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection?
  • Have you ever had an abortion?
  • Have you ever tested positive for HIV/AIDS?
  • Do you have any chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease?
  • Do you exercise regularly and maintain a balanced diet?
  • Are you currently or have you ever been pregnant?
  • Have you been vaccinated against COVID-19, flu, HPV, and so on?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a genetic disorder?
  • Are you experiencing or have you ever experienced symptoms of an eating disorder?
  • Do you have health insurance, and if so, what kind?
  • Do you use illegal substances, or have you used them in the past?
  • How often do you consume alcoholic beverages?
  • Have you ever been treated for cancer?
  • Are you currently or have you ever been addicted to prescription drugs?

Questions about political views

  • What is your political affiliation?
  • What is your opinion on immigration policies in your country?
  • Do you agree with your government’s position on climate change?
  • Do you believe that wealth should be redistributed in society?
  • What is your position on abortion rights?
  • Do you support the death penalty?
  • How do you view the role of government in health care?
  • Do you believe that systemic racism exists in our society?
  • What do you think of the current president’s performance?

Questions about religious beliefs

  • What is your religious affiliation?
  • How often do you go to a place of worship?
  • Do you believe in life after death?
  • Do your religious beliefs influence your political views?
  • Do you believe in the literal interpretation of your holy book?
  • Do you believe that religion should be taught in school?
  • Do you believe in creationism or evolution?
  • Do you agree with your religion’s position on LGBT rights?
  • What do you think about interfaith marriages?

Questions about family and education

  • Were you raised in a single-parent family?
  • Were you ever abused or neglected as a child?
  • Were you ever emotionally or sexually abused as a child?
  • Have your parents or guardians ever been incarcerated?
  • Have you ever lived in foster care or been adopted?
  • Were there substance abuse problems in your home during your childhood?
  • Did you experience the loss of a parent or sibling as a child?
  • Did you grow up in a single-parent family?
  • Were you ever homeless or living in unstable housing conditions as a child?
  • Did you experience poverty as a child?
  • Have you ever experienced harassment or discrimination because of your family’s socioeconomic status?
  • Have you ever witnessed domestic violence in your home?
  • Have you or a family member ever been a refugee or asylum seeker?
  • Have you or a family member ever been in an illegal immigration situation?
  • How would you assess your relationship with your parents/guardians as a child?
  • Have your parents/guardians ever been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness?
  • Did you often go hungry or lack necessities as a child?

Questions about personal and moral values

  • Have you ever lied to someone you care about?
  • Under what circumstances do you consider cheating or dishonesty to be acceptable?
  • How does religion/spirituality influence your decision-making?
  • How do you prioritize your career over your family in your life?
  • How important is respect for the environment to you?
  • Do you take steps daily to reduce your CO2 emissions?
  • What is your position on euthanasia?
  • What is your position on abortion?
  • What is your position on gender equality?
  • What is your position on equal opportunities for people of foreign origin?
  • How do you balance personal freedom and social responsibility?
  • What are your beliefs about volunteering?


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Pierre-Nicolas is de directeur van de marketing agentschap IntoTheMinds. Hij heeft speciaal interesse voor e-commerce, retail, HoReCa en supply-chain projecten. Hij is ook een onderzoeker aan de Vrije Universiteit Brussel en werkt ook als coach voor meerde publieke organisaties. Hij verwelkomt Linkedin uitnodigingen : gelieve gewoon een paar woorden toe te voegen en uit te leggen waarom U wilt connecteren.

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