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Social desirability

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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.

Social desirability in psychosociology

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

Social desirability and acquiescence [2] 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.


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 [3]. 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

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

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. [4]
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

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 [5].
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)" [6], 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.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1960). A new scale of social desirability independent of psychopathology. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24, 349-354
  2. Roccato M., (2003) Desiderabilità Sociale e Acquiescenza. Alcune Trappole delle Inchieste e dei Sondaggi. LED Edizioni Universitarie, Torino. ISBN 88-7916-216-0
  3. Corbetta P., (2003) La ricerca sociale: metodologia e tecniche. Vol. I-IV. Il Mulino, Bologna.
  4. McBurney D.H., (1994) Research Methods. Brooks/Cole, Pacific Grove, California.
  5. 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.
  6. Paulhus D.L., (1998) Paulhus Deception Scales (PDS). Multi-Health Systems Inc., NY.

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