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Social desirability bias is a term used in scientific research to describe the tendency of respondents to reply in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others. This will generally take the form of overreporting "good" behavior or underreporting "bad" behavior. The effect is common within the fields of medicine, psychology and the social sciences.

A hypothetical example of social desirability bias would be a study of sexual behavior, or of drug use. When confronted with the question "Do you masturbate? If so, how often?", a respondent may be influenced by the societal taboo of masturbation, and either lie (falsely claiming not to masturbate) or downright refuse to answer the question. When confronted with the question, "Do you use drugs/illicit substances?" the person may be influenced by the fact that controlled substances, including the more commonly-used marijuana, are generally illegal to take and looked down upon by some in the population; therefore, the person may feel prompted to either answer that they don't use drugs at all, or may feel compelled to at least play down the frequency of their use of such a drug, e.g., "I only smoke marijuana when my friends are around."

Other areas that are sensitive to participants' interpretations of social desirability:

  • Sexual behavior and fantasies, often sanitized, when admitted at all.
  • Personal income and earnings, often inflated when low and deflated when high.
  • Feelings of low self-worth and/or powerlessness, often denied.
  • Excretory functions, often approached uncomfortably, if discussed at all.
  • Compliance with medicinal dosing schedules, often inflated.
  • Religion, often either avoided or uncomfortably approached.
  • Patriotism, either overstated or, if denied, done so with a fear of other party's judgement.
  • Bigotry and intolerance, often denied, even if it exists within the responder.
  • Intellectual achievements, often inflated.
  • Physical appearance, either inflated or played down
  • Acts of real or imagined physical violence, often denied.
  • Indicators of "kindness" or "benevolence," often played down.
  • Illegal acts, often denied.

When social desirability bias cannot be eliminated in research, often the researcher will resort to a scale that measures socially desirable responding, with the assumption that if a participant answers in a socially desirable manner on that scale, they are in all likelihood answering similarly throughout the study. One example of a test that measures socially-desirable responding is the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (MCSDS) [1]. Depending upon the goals of the research, respondents that engage in significant amounts of socially-desirable responding are discarded from statistical consideration; mid-range scorers on a scale of socially-desirable responding may or may not be included in statistical consideration at the researcher's discretion, or their answers may be recalibrated commensurate with their perceived degree of skew, depending upon the measures involved, the goals of the study, and the robustness of the measures used. However, a major problem with such scales is that individuals actually differ in the degree to which they are socially desirable (e.g., nuns versus criminals) and measures of social desirability confound true differences with social-desirability bias.

Individual differences[edit | edit source]

The fact that people differ in their tendency to engage in socially desirable responding (SDR) is a special concern to those measuring individual differences with self-reports. Individual differences in SDR make it difficult to distinguish those people with good traits who are responding factually from those distorting their answers in a positive direction.

When SDR cannot be eliminated, researchers may resort to evaluating the tendency and then control for it. A separate measure of SDR must be administered together with the primary measure (test or interview) aimed at the subject matter of the research/investigation.The key assumption is that respondents who answer in a socially desirable manner on that scale are also responding desirably to all self reports throughout the study.

In some cases the entire questionnaire package from high scoring respondents may simply be discarded. Alternatively, respondents' answers on the primary questionnaires may be statistically adjusted commensurate with their SDR tendencies. For example, this adjustment is performed automatically in the standard scoring of MMPI scales.

The major concern with SDR scales is that they confound style with content. After all, people actually differ in the degree to which they possess desirable traits (e.g., nuns versus criminals). Consequently, measures of social desirability confound true differences with social-desirability bias.

Standard measures[edit | edit source]

Until recently, the most commonly used measure of socially desirable responding was the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale.[1] The original version comprised 33 True-False items. A shortened version, the Strahan–Gerbasi comprises only 10 items, but some have raised questions regarding the reliability of this measure.Thompson and Phua.[2]

In 1991, Delroy L. Paulhus published the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding: a questionnaire designed to measure two forms of SDR.[3] This 40-item instrument provides separate subscales for "impression management", the tendency to give inflated self-descriptions to an audience; and self-deceptive enhancement, the tendency to give honest but inflated self-descriptions. The commercial version of the BIDR called "Paulhus Deception Scales (PDS)",[4] ".

Non-English measures[edit | edit source]

Scales designed to tap response styles are available in all major languages, including Italian [5] and German [6]

Another measure has been used in surveys or opinion polls carried out by interviewing people face-to-face or through the telephone.[7]

Other response styles[edit | edit source]

'Extreme response bias' (ERB) takes the form of exaggerated extremity preference, e.g. for '1' or '7' on 7-point scales. Its converse, 'moderacy bias' entails a preference for middle range (or midpoint) responses (e.g. 3-5 on 7-point scales). 'Acquiescence' is the tendency to prefer the higher ratings over lower ratings, whatever the content of the question.

Social desirability in psychosociology[edit | edit source]

In the field of psychology and social sciences, social desirability is defined as the disturbance coming into play in a study or research, when the subject being interviewed or answering a questionnaire can choose an answer which is viewed as more socially acceptable than the other ones: this makes sure that people try to behave idealistically, that is, they tend to appear as "normal" as possible, i.e. closer to the average.

Spurious variables[edit | edit source]

Social desirability and acquiescence [5] are the main spurious variables (i.e. insincere answers which are difficult to predict and measure) that can be found in research carried out in the form of survey, opinion poll or interviews.
"Social desirability" is the tendency, even though unconscious, to lie in order to appear as socially suitable and acceptable as possible; while "acquiescence" is a form of compliance and submissivness (sometimes unreserved) leading people to answer positively to any question regardless its content.

Devices[edit | edit source]

When carrying out empirical surveys and psycho-social research, the scientific method can make use of some devices in order to reduce or measure the distortion caused by social desirability in the answers obtained through a questionnaire (both filled in by the subject or by an interviewer) and in the surveys or opinion polls carried out by interviewing people face-to-face or through the telephone [7]. Among those forms of administration, which can help to reduce social desirability, there is anonymous self-administration and the administration neutralized through a computer; moreover, the "distortive tendency" typical of the subjects can be measured through a psychometric scale and used as a parameter to be correlated with the results of the variables studied by the research.

Anonymous self-administration[edit | edit source]

When the subjects' details are not required, as in sample investigations and screenings, anonymous administration is preferably used as the person does not feel directly and personally involved in the answers he or she is going to give.
Anonymous self-administration provides neutrality, detachment and reassurance. An even better result is obtained by returning the questionnaires by mail or ballot boxes so as to further guarantee anonymity and the impossibility to identify the subjects who filled in the questionnaires.

Neutralized administration[edit | edit source]

Referring to the administration of tests through a computer (self-administration software), as long as 1994, McBurney noted that social desirability could be reduced thanks to an advantage of the computer: its impersonality. [8]
Generally speaking, the computer can be an effective device to limit the effects of this intervining variable. A computer, even compared to the best and most competent interviewer, provides a higher feeling of neutrality: it does not appear to be judging, it is not emotionally involved or capable to be involved and does not recall phantasmal figures from the subjects' unconscious.

Psychometric measurement[edit | edit source]

The most commonly used measure of social desirability is the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale [1]. Comprising 33 items, many researchers have sought to use shortened versions of the Marlow-Crowne measure, such as the 10-item version used by Thompson and Phua [9].
In 1998, Paulhus Delroy created a psychometric scale to measure the degree of accuracy/truthfulness or insincerity/distortion of the answers a subject tends to give (even though unconsciously) to the questions of an assessment or reactive.
This test must be administered together with a main device (test or interview) whose aim is to measure the real subject matter of the research/investigation (dependent variable). This scale, called "Paulhus Deception Scales (PDS)" [4], is derived from a previous inventory aimed at measuring those answers considered more socially acceptable and desirable, the "Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR)".
PDS is a standardized and validated 40-item self-report questionnaire exploring two areas: the "self-deception" area, that is to say the dimension of the unconscious process leading people to provide distorted answers; and the "other-deception" area where the answers are consciously and intentionally distorted in order to provide a better image of oneself.

Behavioral measurement[edit | edit source]

The most recent approach—the Over-claiming Technique—assesses the tendency to claim knowledge about non-existent items. More complex methods to promote honest answers include the Randomized response and Unmatched count techniques, as well as the Bogus Pipeline Technique.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1960). A new scale of social desirability independent of psychopathology. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24, 349-354 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Crowne" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Thompson, E. R. & Phua, F. T. T. 2005. Reliability among senior managers of the Marlowe-Crowne short-form social desirability scale, Journal of Business and Psychology, 19, 541-554.
  3. Paulhus, D.L. (1991). Measurement and control of response biases. In J.P. Robinson et al. (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes. San Diego: Academic Press
  4. 4.0 4.1 Paulhus D.L., (1998) Paulhus Deception Scales (PDS) is published by Multi-Health Systems of Toronto. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Paulhus" defined multiple times with different content
  5. 5.0 5.1 Roccato M., (2003) Desiderabilità Sociale e Acquiescenza. Alcune Trappole delle Inchieste e dei Sondaggi. LED Edizioni Universitarie, Torino. ISBN 88-7916-216-0 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Roccato" defined multiple times with different content
  6. Stoeber, J. (2001). The social desirability scale-17 (SD-17). European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 17, 222-232.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Corbetta P., (2003) La ricerca sociale: metodologia e tecniche. Vol. I-IV. Il Mulino, Bologna. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Corbetta" defined multiple times with different content
  8. McBurney D.H., (1994) Research Methods. Brooks/Cole, Pacific Grove, California.
  9. Thompson, E. R. & Phua, F. T. T. 2005. Reliability among senior managers of the Marlowe-Crowne short-form social desirability scale, Journal of Business and Psychology, 19(4): 541-554.

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