Best Practice

Sampling Bias in Research: How to Avoid it

Discover how to safeguard your research against sampling bias. From understanding its impact across various fields to mastering techniques for obtaining a representative sample, our comprehensive guide offers essential strategies to enhance the accuracy and reliability of your findings.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Introduction
  2. What is sampling bias?
  3. What are some examples of sampling bias?
  4. What causes sampling bias?
  5. What is the impact of sampling bias?
  6. Types of sampling bias
  7. How to reduce sampling bias


Sampling bias poses a significant threat to the validity of research findings by distorting results toward a particular segment of a target population. This article introduces the concept of sampling bias, highlighting its presence in various fields such as healthcare, education, psychology, and marketing. It explores the causes and impacts of sampling bias, outlines its different types, and provides researchers with the necessary tools to detect and mitigate this pervasive issue.

By offering strategies to reduce and avoid sampling bias, the goal is to improve the credibility and trustworthiness of research outcomes, ensuring they more accurately represent the entire population under study.

Sampling bias is a key factor that researchers need to consider and address in their research.

What is sampling bias?

Sampling bias occurs when the process used to select participants or data points for a study leads to a sample that is not representative of the population from which it was drawn. This non-representativeness can skew the research findings, making them less generalizable and potentially misleading.

The essence of sampling bias lies in the systematic exclusion or over-representation of certain groups within the population. For example, if a study on workplace productivity only includes participants from urban areas, ignoring rural workers, the conclusions may not accurately reflect the broader workforce. Similarly, online surveys might inadvertently favor younger, more tech-savvy respondents, leaving out older demographics or those with limited internet access.

A biased sample can manifest in various forms, depending on the method of sample selection. Convenience sampling, where participants are chosen based on their accessibility to the researcher, often leads to sampling bias because it does not consider the diversity of the population. Voluntary response bias, another form, occurs when individuals choose themselves to participate, which can result in a sample with stronger opinions or interests than the general population.

The consequences of biased samples extend beyond the accuracy of research findings; they can also impact policy decisions, resource allocation, and scientific understanding. For instance, medical research that fails to include diverse ethnic groups may overlook important variations in health outcomes or treatment efficacy. Therefore, identifying and addressing sampling bias is crucial for the integrity and applicability of research outcomes, ensuring they are valid and valuable for the broader population.

What are some examples of sampling bias?

Sampling bias can affect various fields of study, leading to skewed results and potentially flawed conclusions. Below are examples from healthcare, education, psychology, and marketing, illustrating how sampling bias can manifest in different contexts.


In a study aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of a new heart disease medication, researchers decide to recruit participants from a single, high-income urban hospital. This decision inadvertently excludes a significant portion of the population, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds and rural areas, who may have different health profiles and access to healthcare.

As a result, the findings may not accurately represent the medication's effectiveness across the broader population, potentially overlooking variations in drug efficacy or side effects experienced by different demographic groups.


Consider a research project investigating the impact of digital learning tools on student performance. If the study primarily involves schools with advanced technological resources, it may not account for schools in areas where such tools are scarce.

This exclusion leads to a sampling bias that paints an incomplete picture of the digital learning tools' effectiveness, failing to consider the challenges and benefits experienced by students in a more diverse range of educational environments.


A psychologist conducting a study on stress management techniques uses social media to recruit participants. This approach is likely to attract individuals who are not only active on these platforms but also those who have a particular interest in stress management.

Consequently, the sample may not adequately represent the general population's stress levels or coping mechanisms, skewing the results towards those already predisposed to seeking out stress management strategies.


A company launching a new product decides to gather consumer feedback by distributing surveys at an upscale shopping mall. This method primarily captures the opinions of shoppers with higher spending power, neglecting potential customers from various other socioeconomic backgrounds.

The feedback collected is biased towards the preferences and attitudes of a wealthier demographic, which may not reflect the broader consumer base's views and could mislead the company in its marketing strategies.

Sampling bias can occur in research where participants are restricted to a particular demographic. Photo by Heidi Fin.

What causes sampling bias?

Sampling bias arises from various factors, each contributing to the skewing of results in research. Understanding these causes is crucial for researchers aiming to mitigate their impact. This section breaks down the major causes of sampling bias into distinct categories.

Selection process

One of the primary causes of sampling bias is the selection process used to choose participants or data points for a study. When this process is not random or does not account for the diversity of the population, certain groups may be systematically excluded or over-represented.

For instance, relying solely on volunteers can lead to a sample that is more motivated or interested in the research topic than the general population, known as voluntary response bias.


Accessibility issues also play a significant role in sampling bias. Studies that only include participants who are easy to reach, such as people living in urban areas or those who frequent certain institutions, can miss out on a wide range of perspectives.

For example, a survey conducted online might exclude individuals without internet access or those who are not tech-savvy, leading to an unrepresentative sample of the population.


Non-response bias occurs when a significant portion of selected participants chooses not to respond or participate in the study.

The reasons for non-response can vary, including lack of interest, time constraints, or privacy concerns. The individuals who do not participate may differ in crucial ways from those who do, potentially skewing the study's results.

Researcher bias

Researcher bias refers to the conscious or unconscious preferences and assumptions held by researchers, which can influence the selection of study participants.

For example, a researcher might subconsciously choose participants who appear more cooperative or interested in the study topic. This can lead to a sample that does not accurately reflect the diversity of the population.

Sampling frame issues

The sampling frame—the list or database from which participants are chosen—can also contribute to sampling bias if it does not represent the target population. For instance, using a voter registration list to study public opinion might exclude non-registered voters, who could have different views from those on the list.

What is the impact of sampling bias?

Sampling bias can have profound and varied impacts on research, affecting everything from the validity of findings to the decisions made based on those findings. This section explores the major impacts of sampling bias, segmented into the validity of research, decision-making, and ethical considerations.

Validity of research

The most direct impact of sampling bias is on the validity of research findings. When a sample is not representative of the population, the results cannot be reliably generalized to a broader context. This lack of representativeness can lead to incorrect conclusions, misleading insights, and flawed theories.

For example, if a health study on a new medication excludes certain demographic groups, it might falsely conclude that the medication is universally effective, overlooking potential side effects or varying efficacies across different populations.


Decisions based on biased research can lead to ineffective or harmful policies, practices, and interventions. In healthcare, for instance, policy decisions about resource allocation or treatment guidelines that rely on biased studies might not address the needs of all population segments, potentially exacerbating health disparities.

In education, programs designed that are informed by research that overlooks underprivileged communities may fail to bridge the educational gap, further entrenching inequalities. The impact on decision-making underscores the importance of accurate, representative research for informing policies and practices that are equitable and effective.

Ethical considerations

Sampling bias also raises ethical concerns, particularly regarding fairness and equity. Research that consistently excludes or misrepresents certain groups contributes to their marginalization, reinforcing systemic biases and inequalities.

This not only affects the groups' visibility in research but also their access to benefits derived from scientific advancements. Ethically, researchers have a responsibility to ensure their work inclusively reflects the diversity of society, promoting equity in knowledge creation and its applications.

Types of sampling bias

Sampling bias can manifest in various forms, each affecting the research outcome in different ways. Understanding these types is crucial for identifying and mitigating potential biases in studies. This section outlines four common types of sampling bias and discusses stratified random sampling to help address some forms of sampling bias.

Survivorship bias

Survivorship bias occurs when a study focuses only on the subjects that "survived" or made it past a certain selection process, ignoring those that did not. This can lead to overly optimistic or skewed results.

For example, in analyzing the success of startups, focusing only on those companies that have thrived without considering the many that have failed could lead to an overestimation of the factors contributing to success. Recognizing survivorship bias helps researchers consider the full scope of data, including failures, to draw more accurate conclusions.

Observer bias

Observer bias arises when the researchers' expectations or knowledge influence their observation and recording of data. This type of bias is particularly relevant in observational research or experiments requiring subjective interpretation.

For instance, if a researcher expects a certain outcome from a study, they might unconsciously interpret ambiguous responses to fit their hypothesis, skewing the results. In such cases, blinding methods or third-party data analysis can help mitigate observer bias.

Observer bias can affect primary data collection and analysis, such as observations or interviews. Photo by Paul Skorupskas.

Exclusion bias

Exclusion bias happens when certain groups or data points are systematically left out of the research. This can occur due to overly restrictive selection criteria or unintentional oversights in the sampling process.

Exclusion bias can significantly impact the generalizability of the study findings. Employing random or stratified sampling, where the population is divided into distinct subgroups or strata that are then sampled proportionally, can ensure that various segments of the population are adequately represented, reducing the risk of exclusion bias.

Recall bias

Recall bias is prevalent in studies relying on participants' memories of past events, such as epidemiological research. It emerges when the accuracy of recollections varies between participants or groups, often because of the nature or significance of the events being recalled.

For instance, patients with a disease might remember exposure to a supposed risk factor more clearly than healthy controls. Minimizing recall bias requires careful questionnaire design and, when possible, corroborating self-reported data with other records.

How to reduce sampling bias

Reducing sampling bias is essential for enhancing the accuracy and reliability of research findings. By employing specific methodological approaches, researchers can obtain a more representative sample, ensuring that their study reflects the population of interest. This section outlines strategies to significantly reduce sampling bias, focusing on the sample selection process, data collection techniques, and specific considerations for minimizing recall bias.

Use random sampling

Random sampling is foundational for obtaining a representative sample. By giving every member of the population an equal chance of being selected, random sampling minimizes the risk of bias in the sample selection process.

This method counters the tendency to over-represent or under-represent specific characteristics of the population. Implementing random sampling can be as straightforward as using a random number generator to select participants from a list, and this random sample will then be statistically likely to reflect the broader population's diversity.

Ensuring a random sample is key to reflecting the overall characteristics of the target population. Photo by mauro mora.

Implement stratified sampling

Stratified sampling enhances the representativeness of a sample by dividing the population into strata, or subgroups, based on key characteristics and then randomly selecting participants from each stratum.

This approach ensures that all segments of the population are included in the sample in proportion to their prevalence in the population. Stratified sampling is particularly effective in studies where specific characteristics are known to affect the research outcome, as it can significantly reduce sampling bias by guaranteeing that these characteristics are adequately represented.

Opt for systematic sampling

Systematic sampling involves selecting participants at regular intervals from an ordered list, combining the simplicity of random sampling with the added assurance of spread across the population.

After randomly choosing a starting point, researchers select every nth participant, with the interval n determined by the desired sample size and the size of the population. This method simplifies the sample selection process and can help distribute the selection evenly across the population.

Enhance data collection methods

To collect data more effectively and inclusively, researchers can employ multiple data collection methods, reaching out to participants through various channels. This multi-pronged approach ensures that different segments of the population, especially those that might be hard to reach through a single method, have the opportunity to participate in the study.

By diversifying how they collect data, researchers can mitigate biases associated with accessibility and non-response. Moreover, findings can be triangulated across the different data sources to verify that the findings are not biased by a single data source.

Address recall bias

To mitigate recall bias, researchers should design questionnaires and interviews that help all participants accurately recall information. This can involve using neutral language, providing cues or timelines to aid memory, and validating responses against other sources of data when possible.

Employing such techniques ensures that the accuracy of recollections does not disproportionately affect one group over another, reducing the impact of recall bias on the study's findings.