In the context of participating in a psychology study, social desirability bias refers to the tendency to present one’s self in a favorable way rather than to give accurate answers. In other words, participants have a tendency to answer in ways that make them look good in the eyes of others, regardless of the accuracy of their answers. For example, most people would deny that they drive after drinking alcohol because it reflects poorly on them and others would most likely disapprove.
Psychologists have long been interested in people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and have often relied on self-reports to gather information. For example, a person may be asked to indicate which items in a list of characteristics describe him or her. The underlying assumption in the use of self-reports to collect information is that people are experts in knowing themselves. However, researchers recognize that individuals can distort their responses to self-reports in ways that are inaccurate and misleading. Distortion of responses may be to the result of an individual’s disposition (i.e., their personality) or caused by aspects of the situation (e.g., the way a statement is phrased). Social desirability bias is one way of distorting responses that has received a large amount of empirical investigation.
In general, social desirability bias can take one of two forms. One involves self-deception, whereby a person provides inaccurate information but believes that it is accurate. For example, reporting that one is better than average on any given attribute could suggest a distorted response that is a subjectively honest response. A second form of social desirability is impression management whereby people intentionally distort responses to appear better than what they are. A good example of impression management occurs in the context of job interviews where applicants present themselves in ways to make themselves appear best suited for the job.
The literature shows that self reports are especially vulnerable to inaccurate responses caused by social desirability. As a result, some researchers suggest alternative ways to collect information such as through direct observation or having others report information about the respondents. However, because self-reports remain an economical way to gather information, one focus in the research on social desirability concerns how best to deal with this bias. For example, evidence suggests that this bias may be reduced through careful wording of questions and the assurance of anonymity. Some researchers take the approach of measuring for social desirability bias and statistically controlling for its influence.
- Paulhus, D. L. (1991). Measurement and control of response bias. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes (pp. 17-59). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Paulhus, D. L., & Reid, D. B. (1991). Enhancement and denial in socially desirable responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 307-317.