What is Social Desirability Bias – Causes & Examples
Published byat August 29th, 2023 , Revised On September 1, 2023
In psychology, human behaviour, and research methodologies, biases can significantly impact how we perceive ourselves and respond to questions. One such cognitive bias is the social desirability bias. But what exactly is it, why does it happen, and how does it manifest in real life? Let’s discuss further.
What is the Social Desirability Definition
Social desirability refers to the tendency of some individuals to respond to questions in a manner that others will view favourably. This can lead to over-reporting “good behaviour” or under-reporting “bad behaviour”. The term is often used in the context of social science research, where it’s acknowledged that respondents might adjust their answers to seem more socially acceptable, even if those answers are not accurate.
Social desirability can bias research results, so researchers use various methods to mitigate its effects. One common method is to ensure participants’ anonymity so they feel less pressure to answer in a socially desirable manner. Social desirability can bias research results, so researchers use various methods to mitigate its effects.
One common method is to ensure participants’ anonymity so they feel less pressure to answer in a socially desirable manner. Another method might involve using source evaluation methods and drawing from a scholarly source, especially if that source offers insights into minimising bias.
Causes of Social Desirability Bias
Several causes or factors contribute to social desirability bias:
Cultural and Societal Norms
In many cultures and societies, there are specific norms and values that individuals are expected to adhere to. Respondents might answer questions in alignment with these norms, even if their true beliefs or behaviours differ.
Fear of Judgment
Respondents might be concerned about how others will perceive their answers, especially if they think they are in the minority or hold an unpopular view.
Self-perception, which can sometimes be influenced by actor-observer bias, is when some individuals may answer in ways that align with their ideal self rather than their actual self. This is not just about pleasing others; it is about confirming an internal self-image.
Anonymity or Lack Thereof
If respondents believe that their answers can be traced back to them, they may be more prone to answer in socially desirable ways.
Questions about personal income, illegal activities, sexual behaviours, health behaviours (e.g., drug use, exercise, diet), and other sensitive topics are particularly susceptible to this bias.
If the interviewer or researcher has any visible characteristics or behaves in a way that might influence the respondent (like appearing judgmental), the respondent may adjust their answers accordingly.
Question Wording and Structure
Question Wording and Structure, where confirmation bias may play a role. How a question is phrased can influence how respondents answer. Leading questions or ones that imply a “right” or “wrong” answer can exacerbate social desirability bias.
If the provided choices are not comprehensive or are biased in their wording, respondents might choose the most socially acceptable one, even if it does not fully align with their views.
Desire to Please
Desire to please, often referred to as a bias for action, means some respondents might want to give answers they believe the researcher or interviewer wants to hear, especially if they perceive the research as having a particular goal or agenda.
Misunderstanding the Purpose
If respondents do not understand the importance of accuracy or believe there is a “correct” answer, they might lean towards what seems socially acceptable.
Types of Social Desirability Bias
Social desirability bias can be seen as an explicit bias where people are aware of it, or more implicit where it operates subconsciously. There are two primary types of social desirability bias:
Impression Management (Self-Deception Enhancement)
This type involves respondents intentionally distorting their responses to appear more favourable or socially acceptable. For instance, a person might over-report their exercise habits because they believe that’s what others consider to be “good” behaviour.
Self-Deceptive Positivity (Self-Deception Denial)
This type refers to genuinely believing and internalising the socially desirable response. In this case, the distortion is not necessarily conscious. An individual may underestimate the amount of unhealthy food they consume because they have internalised a self-concept of being health-conscious, even if that’s not entirely accurate.
Social Desirability Examples
Here are a few examples:
How to Reduce Social Desirability Bias in your Research Design
Reducing social desirability bias in research design is essential for obtaining accurate and reliable data. Here are some strategies that researchers can employ:
Anonymity and Confidentiality
Assure participants that their responses will remain anonymous and confidential. When people believe their answers won’t be linked back to them, they are more likely to be honest.
Rather than asking a question directly, phrase it in a way that is more indirect. For instance, instead of asking, “Do you smoke?” ask, “How do people feel about smoking?”
Use of Scales
Instead of yes-no questions, use scales that allow for a range of answers. This can capture nuances in responses.
Randomised Response Techniques
This involves asking participants to answer one of two sensitive and non-sensitive questions but not telling the researcher which one they answered.
Instead of asking about the respondent’s behaviour or opinion, ask what they think most people would do or believe. This can provide insights into actual behaviours or beliefs without asking directly.
Counterbalancing Social Desirability
Include questions that have opposing social desirability tendencies. If someone is consistently picking the socially desirable option, it can help flag their responses.
Ensure that questions are neutrally worded without any hint of judgment or expected answer.
Use of Lie Scales
Some questionnaires include “lie scales,” which are designed to measure the extent to which a participant might be answering in a socially desirable manner.
If you conduct face-to-face or telephone interviews, train your interviewers to remain neutral and not give verbal or non-verbal cues that might influence responses.
Mix Data Collection Methods
Mix Data Collection Methods, where integrating feedback from an affinity bias group (those with similar backgrounds or viewpoints) can offer contrasting data, combining qualitative with quantitative methods or face-to-face with self-administered questionnaires, can help cross-validate data.
Before finalising your survey or questionnaire, conduct a pilot test to check for any unintentional biases or leading questions.
Being Aware of Sensitive Topics
If certain questions are extremely sensitive, consider the benefits and risks of including them in your survey. Finding alternative methods to gather this data or rephrase the questions may be worthwhile.
During data analysis, consider employing statistical techniques to identify patterns that might be indicative of social desirability bias.
How to Detect Social Desirability Bias
Detecting social desirability bias in research can be challenging, as it often operates beneath the surface of conscious awareness for both the participant and the researcher.
However, several approaches and techniques can help in identifying its presence:
Use of Validated Scales
Specific scales like the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale are designed to measure social desirability bias. When participants score high on these scales, it suggests a higher likelihood of their responses being influenced by social desirability.
Inconsistencies in Responses
Look for patterns in the data where answers seem inconsistent or positive. If participants consistently provide the “ideal” answer across various questions, it might indicate social desirability.
High Agreement Rates
Extremely high rates of agreement with positive statements or disagreement with negative ones may indicate this bias.
Comparing Anonymous vs. Non-anonymous Responses
If feasible, compare responses from anonymous surveys to those where the respondent’s identity is known. A significant difference in responses might suggest the influence of social desirability.
Use of Open-ended Questions
Analyse the content of open-ended responses. If participants provide more candid or nuanced information in a free-text format compared to structured questions, this could suggest the presence of bias in the latter.
Comparison with Objective Measures
Whenever possible, compare self-reported data with objective measures. For instance, if someone claims they exercise five times a week, but wearables or gym records show otherwise, there might be a discrepancy due to social desirability.
Conduct follow-up interviews with a subset of participants if feasible. This allows for deeper probing into specific answers and can shed light on the honesty and consistency of earlier responses.
Check for Over-endorsement of Virtues
If participants frequently claim rarely exhibited virtuous behaviour, it might suggest a bias. For example, an unusually high number of participants claiming they always donate to charity could be a red flag.
Review Extreme Cases
Analysing outliers or extreme cases can help. Further investigation is warranted if some participants consistently provide extremely positive or socially desirable responses.
Internal Review and Expert Feedback
Sometimes, having peers or experts review your data can bring an external perspective that helps spot patterns indicative of social desirability.
Post-hoc Statistical Techniques
Some statistical methods, like latent class analysis or factor analysis, might help detect underlying data patterns consistent with social desirability bias.
In addition to the already mentioned strategies, researchers need to be aware of publication bias, where studies that show certain results are more likely to be published than others. This can have an indirect ceiling effect, limiting the range of published results available for review.
A unique concept somewhat related to the concept of projecting positive traits onto others is the Pygmalion effect, where higher expectations lead individuals to perform better. This might not be directly related to social desirability bias, but it provides a fascinating lens to understand the broader impact of perceptions in social settings.
Frequently Asked Questions
Social desirability bias is the tendency for people to present themselves in a favourable manner by providing socially acceptable responses, rather than being truthful. This can distort survey and interview results, as individuals might misreport information to align with perceived societal norms and expectations.
When asked about their dietary habits in a survey, individuals might exaggerate their consumption of healthy foods and downplay intake of unhealthy ones, not necessarily because it’s true, but because it’s seen as socially desirable to eat healthily. This can skew research findings on actual eating behaviours.
Social desirability bias is not inherently based on gender, but gender can influence the ways in which this bias manifests. Cultural and societal expectations differ for men and women, and as such, what’s considered “socially desirable” might vary based on gender.
In face-to-face interviews, social desirability bias occurs when interviewees provide answers they believe the interviewer wants to hear or that seem socially acceptable rather than their true feelings or beliefs. This can distort data, as respondents might misreport information to appear favourable in the interviewer’s presence.
Social desirability bias stigma refers to the reluctance of individuals to report behaviours or attitudes that may be stigmatized or judged negatively by society. Driven by the desire to appear favourable, individuals might hide or misrepresent aspects of their identity or actions that they believe are socially undesirable or taboo.
Preventing social desirability bias involves ensuring respondent anonymity, framing questions neutrally, using indirect questioning, employing third-party data collection, and promoting an environment of trust and non-judgment. Additionally, being aware of potential biases and using statistical methods can help adjust for or detect such biases in research outcomes.