A social desirability bias makes way because people want to adhere to socially acceptable responses so that they are viewed in a favorable light. PsycholoGenie will delve deeper into the meaning of this bias and help you understand the subject better, along with providing means of how to overcome the same.
Did You Know?
A pseudo lie detector test developed in the 1970s was administered to the subjects who took part in surveys. Through this they were made to believe that an electromyograph (EMG) to which they were attached by means of electrodes would help to detect whether they were speaking the truth.
Social desirability is a term used to explain the tendency of people to answer questions in a socially acceptable manner during surveys. This behavior stems from the basic need and tendency of people to be in sync with the popular opinion, politically correct response, or the desirable response regarding a subject so that they are viewed in a more positive light. This bias prevents people from providing truthful answers to survey questions, thereby leading to skewed results of surveys and studies, and thus diminishing the very purpose of these. In this following PsycholoGenie article, we will explain what social desirability bias is through examples, and provide ways in which this can be prevented.
What is the Social Desirability Bias
Surveys are an important and popular tool that are undertaken to study the responses of the general public through a random selection of subjects (who may be placed in a controlled environment), in order to draw certain conclusions. This is a very popular tool used in quantitative and qualitative studies that are a part of subjects like psychology and marketing. Surveys and studies are thus considered a very important tool in any policy-forming process, and the success of these surveys largely depends on the truthful responses of the subjects. There are, however, certain biases that guide these subjects and prevent them from providing truthful answers to the questions―one of which is the social desirability bias.
Like we stated earlier, this bias makes way because of the subjects’ desire to adhere to the popular, politically correct, and accepted responses and discard negative responses so that people form a favorable opinion about them. Interestingly though, not all people are guided by the social desirability bias and only certain individuals exhibit the same. People who exhibit this bias have a strong need for approval by others, which becomes apparent through (not only) their responses to surveys, but also their general behavior. People who adhere to this bias, do so in either of the two ways, ‘self-deception’ and ‘other deception’. Other deception is used when they respond falsely to a question, knowing that it is false; self-deception is when they respond falsely to a question believing that it is true.
Common Instances of the Bias
Some of the most common instances in which this bias makes way is in case of sensitive or controversial subject matters. These include subjects like smoking, drinking, gambling, and/or taking drugs, illegal behavior, intense and unfair hatred or dislike towards others or their ideas in matters of religion, sexual orientation, gender, race and creed, handicap, disability, socioeconomic status, and/or nationality, as well as intolerance. Other than these obvious instances, the social desirability bias is also observed in matters of littering and recycling.
Let us take a simple social desirability bias example to understand this subject better. A questionnaire has been given out to a group of young men and the subject is, ‘A young woman wants to find a date for the prom’. The questions pertain to their habits, lifestyle, practices, and opinions, and they have been asked to fill the questionnaire truthfully. The questions include things like―’Do you smoke? If yes, how many in a day?’ or ‘Do you think abortion is ethical?’, etc. Social desirability bias will make way in this case where even if a person smokes, he might tick the ‘don’t smoke’ column or if he smokes say 5 cigarettes a day, he might write 2. Similarly, if he believes that abortion is ethically wrong and does not support it, he might still respond with a positive saying that abortion is ethical and only the woman has the right to choose.
All these are instances make way because of the applicant’s desire to appear moralistic, a good person who believes in all the right things, and is good at heart. The extent of this bias is clearly observed through the fact that even though they do not know who this girl is and are not emotionally involved with her in any way, they still want whoever reads the questionnaire to have a favorable opinion about them.
Ways to Overcome the Bias
The negative effect of this bias is that it prevents people from answering survey questions truthfully and this affects the credibility of the survey. This is why it becomes important to understand ways to overcome social desirability bias such that it assures success of the surveys taken. It needs to be understood though that some form of this bias will make way in all surveys that are taken―however, in order to prevent this bias from affecting the research as far as possible, there are a number of techniques that are adopted. We will look into these in the following section.
1. Implement the Social Desirability Bias Scale
A social desirability bias scale is drawn such that it can measure the responses of applicants and distinguish the true responses from the false. In that direction, the most famous and widely used scale is the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. This scale consists of specially constructed questions, the responses of which allow us to read behavior patterns that may be culturally sanctioned and/or approved, but which are improbable of occurring. For example, ‘Before casting my vote, I make sure that I study the qualifications of all the candidates thoroughly’. While this behavior is socially acceptable (celebrated, rather), it is highly improbable. Even though it has been argued that the scale measures one’s need to avoid disapproval, rather than a need for seeking social approval, its success cannot be denied.
This scale is given along with the main questionnaire to be filled and those who score high on the MC scale are scrutinized when the main questionnaire is analyzed. Their questionnaire might be given less importance in relation to others or it might be completely disregarded. By eliminating those individuals whose results may hamper the overall survey results, one increases the chances of getting a more credible result from the surveys.
2. Choose the Self-Completion Mode
It has been studied that when the interviewer-administered mode (where an interviewer asks you questions) is implemented, there are increased chances of the social desirability bias making way. In place of that, if the self-completion mode is chosen, there are fewer chances of the bias affecting the survey. Why does that happen? When a person is administering the questionnaire and the subject is supposed to respond to him directly, the subject knows that the answers that he gives will be judged face-to-face, and therefore, he tends to give more socially desirable answers even though they are false. However, when the self-completion mode is adopted and there is no pressure of an interviewer to whom one has to respond, the answers are more truthful.
3. Choose a Random Model
In addition to a self-completion mode, choosing a random model of answering the survey is also known to help plenty. When a survey has to be answered anonymously without any disclosure of your personal details, there is a tendency to answer truthfully. This is because the subject knows that he will not be judged. Specifying this clause at the beginning of the questionnaire will usually guarantee truthful responses.
4. Don’t Reveal the Purpose
Revealing the purpose of the survey at the onset leads to preparing the subjects for what is to follow, they therefore have the time to prepare their responses such that they are socially more acceptable. If, on the other hand, the main aim of the survey is not disclosed, it allows the interviewer to not only have an insight into the true nature of the subject’s mind, but also gives him the scope to explore the subject’s priorities, opinions, and values without any restrictions. For example, if one has to study the attitudes and behavior of subjects towards the lack of rights given to homosexuals, one could simply say that it is a study about rights given to homosexuals, this will help them to know what the subjects truly think about the subject matter, whether they are pro rights or against rights without being guided by what the study is really about. In this way, they will not have a chance to change or alter their responses.
5. Word the Questions Well
A great way to ensure that truthful answers are given, is to assure them of the fact that there are no right or wrong answers. This will help them to know that any response is perfectly acceptable without worrying about coming up with a socially acceptable answer. Another technique that has been found to garner success is to provide them with statements that other subjects have made regarding the topic, and then asking them to choose one that they identify with the most. This will again reinforce the fact that there is no ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ response.
6. Introduce Proxy Subjects
In order to eliminate the entire process of judging subjects based on whether their responses are guided by the social desirability bias, the interviewers interview acquaintances and close friends of the subjects instead of the subjects themselves. This allows them an insight into the subject’s opinions, mindset and the like and provides them with truthful responses to the queries. This happens because the subjects are not guided by the need to create socially acceptable responses for someone else. In the course of which, the desired results are achieved.
A social desirability bias can have disastrous effects on the results of any survey. It is therefore crucial to not only identify these, but also prevent them in order to ensure truthful and unfettered responses by the subjects, and thereby ensure a credible survey.