The term self-reports refers to information that is collected from an individual’s own description of the events, sensations, or beliefs under scrutiny. Self-reports may be collected with any of several different methods: for example, surveys and questionnaires, electronic diaries, and clinical interviews. Self-reports are distinguished from other methods of data collection because their only source is the respondent’s personal account.
Issues Surrounding the Use of Self-Reports
Most researchers agree that it is naive to believe that all self-reports are fully accurate. However, it is also simplistic to assume that because self-reports can be erroneous, they are not valuable or informative. A better approach is to attend closely to the various cognitive and motivational factors that influence people’s ability and willingness to report on their beliefs, feelings, and activities. Numerous such factors have been identified. Although some of these factors concern outright deception (e.g., when accurate self-reports would be embarrassing or harmful), more commonly self-reports are distorted by the limits of people’s ability to store, save, recall, and summarize information. For example, research has shown that when asked to describe events from their past, people are prone to report whatever information is most accessible at that moment, regardless of whether that information is correct or was made accessible by an experimental manipulation.
Self-reports are also known to be biased by an individual’s motives, goals, and personality. For example, people high in the personality trait of neuroticism tend to experience and describe events in their lives (for example, everyday stressors, pain symptoms) as more distressing than do people low in neuroticism.
Whenever possible, it is useful to corroborate self-reports through other sources, such as historical records, reports by informed friends and family members, psychophysiological recording, or behavioral observation. Systematic comparison of self-reports with these other sources of data can provide valuable insights into the processes that contribute to accuracy and inaccuracy in self-reports. Nevertheless, many important concepts are either intrinsically subjective and internal, and therefore measurable only through self-reports (for instance, pain, momentary mood, attitudes, feelings about of another person), or are for pragmatic reasons impossible to appraise otherwise (for instance, behavior over a month’s time, events in the distant past). For this reason, substantial effort has gone into developing instruments and procedures that maximize the validity of self-reports.
- Stone, A. A., Turkhan, J. S., Bachrach, C. A., Jobe, J. B., Kurtzman, H. S., & Cain, V. S. (Eds.). (2000). The science of self-report. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.