What is social desirability bias?

Social desirability bias is a type of cognitive distortion that occurs when people say what others want to hear. In other words, this psychological phenomenon means the tendency to hide socially undesirable attitudes and behaviors and to demonstrate more desirable attributes.

The theory of social desirability bias suggested by Paulhus (1984) involves two components . One is impression management, which is the purposeful presentation of self to fit into a situation or please an audience. A second component is self-deception, which may be unconscious, and is based on the motivation to maintain a positive self-concept.

Tourangeau and Yan (2007), based on an extensive literature review, conclude that socially desirable  bias is often motivated by the desire to avoid embarrassment.

Some topics that are sensitive to social desirability bias include: 

1) Self-reported personality traits  

2) Personal income and earnings, often overpriced when low, and deflated when high

3) Feelings of low self-esteem and / or impotence are often denied

4) Family planning, including the use of contraception and abortion 

5) Religion is often either avoided or treated with inconvenience or, if denied, manifested for fear of condemnation by the other party 

6) Fanaticism and intolerance are often denied even if they are present

7) Intellectual achievements are often exaggerated  

8) Acts of real or imagined physical violence are often neglected

9) Indicators of charity or “goodwill” are often overstated

10) Illegal actions are often denied 

How to reduce social desirability bias

There are various methods to reduce social desirability bias while conducting research. Read more about them below.

Anonymity and confidentiality 

Anonymous surveys have been proven to report less cases of a social desirability bias than in-person or telephone surveys. In anonymous settings, respondents are guaranteed that their answers will not be associated with them. People are not asked to disclose confidential information directly to the researcher. Anonymity can be achieved by self-administering paper polls delivered by mail, or self-administering electronic polls organized with the help of a computer, smartphone or tablet. 

Questioning techniques

Several techniques have been developed to reduce bias while answering questions that are sensitive to social desirability. Tricky questioning techniques can reduce social desirability bias, but can also be confusing or misunderstood by respondents. In addition to specific methods, social desirability bias can be reduced with a neutral question and quick wording. 

Randomized response methods 

The randomized response method asks the participant to respond with a fixed response or answer truthfully based on the results of a random act. For example, respondents secretly flip a coin and answer “yes” if it comes up tails (regardless of their actual answer to the question), or they are instructed to answer truthfully if it comes up tails. This allows the researcher to estimate the actual prevalence of a given behavior in the study population without needing to know the true statement of any particular respondent. Research shows that the effectiveness of the randomized response method is limited. 

‘Best friends’ techniques 

This method requires participants to give answers about the behavior of their close friends, not their own. Participants are asked how many close friends they know are likely to exhibit a particular behavior. This way, the information about the behavior of the population can be obtained. A similar “best friend” technique requires the participant to answer questions about the behavior of one best friend.

Cross, triangular and latent sensitivity methods 

These methods ask participants to choose one answer based on two or more questions, only one of which is socially sensitive. For example, the participant will be asked if their year of birth is even and whether they have performed illegal activities; if yes for both or no for both, select A, and if yes for one but no for the other, select B. By combining socially sensitive and non-sensitive questions, the participant’s response to the sensitive element is masked. 

Dummy pipeline

Dummy pipeline methods are methods in which the participant believes that an objective test, such as a lie detector, will be used in conjunction with the survey response, regardless of whether the test or procedure is actually used.

Define social desirability bias

Considering all the information given above, you probably can define social desirability bias if you face it in your life. In short, this phenomenon is often observed when people are answering questions on “socially sensitive” topics.

Social desirability bias makes them give responses in a way that will be viewed favorably by others. This can take the form of excessive reporting of “good behavior” or underreporting of “bad” or undesirable behavior.

Svitlana Drach

Svitlana Drach

Psychology4u.net team member

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