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What is Social Desirability Bias

question design

What is social desirability bias?
Have you ever found yourself answering questions in a way that wasn’t quite the whole truth, because you wanted to gain approval of the person asking you the question? For instance, when your doctor or the health coach at your employer asks you how much you exercise, have you ever rounded up a bit and said you are more active than you truly are?

This is an example of social desirability bias – when someone provides an answer that may be skewed towards what they think is more socially appropriate or is what the other person wants to hear.

How does this impact research?

Here’s something that just happened to me. I just received a phone call to participate in a survey. It was a political poll and it lasted 12 minutes. The person on the other end of the phone was a female who had an accent. English was not her first language. The polling questions included asking me a lot about my opinions on the public education system. I was asked to prioritize providing racial equality, opportunity, economic equality, freedom, justice, etc.

Knowing that the person interviewing me was likely from a very different background than my own, I felt somewhat pressured to think about her as I answered these questions. Did she approve of my answers? If I sensed any approval or disapproval from her, I may have been pressured to answer questions in a less than truly honest way.

This is social desirability bias. Thankfully, I’m aware of this bias and I tried very hard to rail against it, but I found myself providing extra unnecessary context to my answers. If I was taking this survey online, I’m not sure if I would have answered the same way. If there was a comments box alongside these questions, I probably would not have shared in a comments box the same context that I shared with her on the phone.

There are other ways social desirability bias exists in research. The Encyclopedia of Social Measurement, 2005 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B0123693985000372 outlines that:

“Social desirability bias can result from:

      • (1) the nature of the data collection or experimental procedures or settings,
      • (2) the degree to which a respondent seeks to present themselves in a favorable light,
      • (3) the degree to which the topic of the survey and the survey questions refer to socially value-laden topics,
      • (4) the degree to which respondents’ answers will be viewed publicly versus privately (anonymously),
      • (5) respondents’ expectations regarding the use of the research and their individual answers, and
      • (6) the extent to which respondents can guess what types of responses will please the interviewer or sponsor of the researcher.”

How can market researchers reduce social desirability bias? The more distanced the survey taker is from a human, the better. You’ll receive less biased, more objective answers when using online surveys. Face-to-face research is the most likely to produce social desirable answers. Not only do you have tone of voice influencing the survey taker, but also eye contact and body language. All of these social inputs can influence the way a participant responds to the interviewer. An online survey removes the other person. The survey taker only has to focus on the questions on the screen.

Social desirability bias is most prominent when discussing sensitive subjects: politics, religion, sex, exercise, drug/alcohol consumption, spending habits. Survey takers are more likely to hide their true behaviors or opinions on sensitive topics in order to fit in and not be judged harshly. An online survey may be answered more honestly since there is no other person there to react to their answers.

This doesn’t mean that social desirability bias is completely absent from online survey research though. Some bias may still remain based on how questions are asked.

Try these strategies for reducing social desirability in your online surveys:

  • Provide anonymity. Communicate confidentiality. (But only communicate confidentiality if it’s true; don’t misrepresent the privacy of the survey taker’s data.)
  • Review your word choice to eliminate any positive or negatively leaning questioning. Do not lead the survey taker in any way. Be as objective in your wording as possible. Remove all assumptions about the survey taker from the questions.
  • Monitor your selection choices. When asking about a behavior that may have some negative judgment baked in, make sure you have ranges that will encompass the extremes; doing this may encourage more truthful answers.

Example: How many alcoholic drinks do you consume per week?  Option choices: 0, 1 to 5, 6 to 9, 10 or more

In this instance, those who drink a few drinks per day may choose 6 to 9 in order to stay away from the top of the range which they may interpret as what the researchers will consider drinking too much. To encourage more truthful answers, provide more ranges that allow more extreme answers. This may help those who drink more regularly feel more comfortable providing their honest answer.

Example: How many alcoholic drinks do you consume per week? 0, 1 to 5, 6 to 10, 11 to 15, 16 to 20, 21 to 29, 30 to 39, 40 or more

  • Use indirect questioning. Oftentimes, people are more truthful when assessing someone else’s behavior vs. reporting their own behavior (see citation). When a survey taker reports on observed behavior of others instead of their own, it’s less likely to produce feelings of shame or guilt.

Citations:
Robert J. Fisher and Gerard J. Tellis (1998) ,”Removing Social Desirability Bias With Indirect Questioning: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 563-567.  https://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/8212/volumes/v25/NA-25