Social Desirability Bias – Definition, Examples, and How to Reduce it

Social Desirability Bias
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How to reduce Social Desirability Bias and Social Desirability Effect?

What is Social Desirability Bias?

Many researchers use a survey or interview as a tool in their research to gather data. This method is one of the most effective ways to understand what the sample thinks about a particular matter. From the data collected, a researcher will be able to draw more concrete conclusions.

However, it’s not uncommon for bias to happen in a survey or during an interview. Biases can happen for several reasons. The types of bias in a survey or interview can vary, depending on the type of instrument the researcher used.

One of the main types of bias that usually occur is social desirability bias. This bias is more common in qualitative studies using interviews or in surveys with sensitive or controversial questions. We will take a closer look at social desirability bias to understand its definition, examples, and also to learn about ways on how you can reduce this bias in your research.

Social Desirability Bias definition

Social Desirability Bias is a form of response bias in which people prefer to answer questions about how their responses will be interpreted by others rather than reply truthfully. The respondents will choose socially acceptable answers or politically correct responses.

The tendency for respondents to showcase themselves in a more flattering fashion is known as social desirability bias. They provide answers that are more socially acceptable than their actual attitude and behaviour. The responses are either exaggerated to reflect good behaviour or downplayed to conceal bad behavior. The Social Desirability Effect is to describe when Social Desirability Bias occurs due to the self-reporting bias scenario.

When does Social Desirability Bias appear?

Social desirability bias occurs when the topic of the survey or interview is a sensitive one. The respondents will give a socially accepted answer because the matter is too sensitive for them so, they don’t want to reveal their true feelings about it. At times, the topic is controversial and they want to conform to the socially acceptable response.

Social Desirability Bias in Surveys

This form of bias is more common when a researcher uses a self-report study to gather information from the respondents. A self-report study is a type of poll or survey where the respondents select an answer themselves without any interference.

This type of study requires the respondents to provide an answer regarding their feelings, experience, beliefs, attitudes etc. Self-report studies are known to have validity issues. Respondents may exaggerate or lie when choosing an answer to sensitive questions.

Sensitive or controversial questions that are blunt may cause some respondents to feel uncomfortable. Therefore, they may lie because they don’t want their real attitude to show. The question such as “Have you ever watched pornography before?” may cause respondents to answer “No” even though they have watched it because of the taboo against bad habbits.

Even though the respondents chose to participate in the survey anonymously, it’s not unusual for them to lie. While the researcher may not know who gives which answer, respondents still have the desire to be among the majority who may conform to the socially acceptable response.

Social Desirability Bias in interviews

Social desirability bias may be more prevalent when a researcher uses an interview as a method to gather data. Respondents may be uncomfortable to reveal their true attitudes or behaviors. This reaction is also known as impression management.

Respondents may feel more pressure to look good in front of other respondents, thus causing them to exaggerate or lie. This is called the Social Desirability Effect. Similarly, a respondent may feel embarrassed to admit the truth about their attitudes or behaviors so, they will lie or underplay their responses.

Social desirability bias in interviews occurs not because the respondents are natural liars. When put in a situation where they have to talk to about sensitive or controversial issues, some respondents may feel uncomfortable, or in some cases, the respondents want to seek social approvals for different reasons. This situation may cause them to react differently than their true attitude or behavior.

There are several studies conducted to understand why respondents commit social desirability bias. However, experts believe respondents behave in such a way to avoid embarrassment, uneasiness, and distress because they’re wary about what their answers will reveal about them.

How to reduce Social Desirability Bias

In a lot of cases, social desirability bias happens because of how researchers word the questions. Respondents may interpret blunt questions as threatening or embarrassing. Even though the respondents are aware of the objective of the research, poorly worded questions can still cause them to feel uncomfortable.

As a researcher, you should word your questions carefully to reduce social desirability bias in a study. Many respondents are tolerant of sensitive or controversial topics, but you need to articulate the questions well so that you’re able to get as accurate a result as possible. Another way to reduce Social Desirability Bias is to avoid biased questions.

Understanding the theory of intuitive embarrassment can help you to design a study that is not threatening or embarrassing. Your questions shouldn’t require long answers because experts stated that providing socially acceptable answers take more effort.

Examples of Why Social Desirability Bias exists

Respondents can feel too exposed when they’re required to provide long and descriptive answers. This can make them change their answers to something more socially acceptable. Having high social desirability bias in your study can skew your data, rendering your study meaningless.

To further reduce social desirability bias in your study, you can choose to combine different ways to collect data during your study. For instance, in a face-to-face interview, you can allow the respondents to provide their answers to highly sensitive questions after the session via anonymous self-administered mode.

This way, the respondents will not feel pressured, threatened, or embarrassed as they’re allowed their own space to provide their responses. Having gone a face-to-face interview beforehand, they will know what to expect when they need to provide their answer later.

The respondents are more likely to provide genuine answers because they’re calmer and more open to the objective of the study. Furthermore, having a combination of methods to gather data is more effective in gathering significant data and in reducing biases.

Conclusion

Understanding the causes of social desirability bias can reduce its possibility in your study. Since it’s hard to determine what triggers the respondents, it’s your role as a perceptive researcher to design a study that’s carefully worded and non-threatening.

How to reduce Social Desirability Bias?

As a researcher, you should word your questions carefully to reduce social desirability bias in a study. Many respondents are tolerant of sensitive or controversial topics, but you need to articulate the questions well so that you’re able to get as accurate a result as possible. Another way to reduce Social Desirability Bias is to avoid biased questions.

Learn more from Diversity Social Bias Learning

What is Social Desirability Bias in simple words?

The tendency for respondents to showcase themselves in a more flattering fashion is known as social desirability bias. They provide answers that are more socially acceptable than their actual attitude and behaviour. The responses are either exaggerated to reflect good behaviour or downplayed to conceal bad behavior. The Social Desirability Effect is to describe when Social Desirability Bias occurs due to the self-reporting bias scenario.

Learn more from Diversity Social Bias Learning

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About the author

Brian Chan

Brian Chan is the Managing Diversity & Inclusion Director (Chief Diversity Officer) at Diversity.Social. Brian has years of experience working at Fortune 500 companies in diverse environments and building diverse teams in Asian, Europe, America, and Canada.

Brian believes that building diverse and inclusive working environments isn't a luxury for resourceful organizations only, it should be leveraged and start from grassroots.

Brian is a serial entrepreneur and has founded high technology ventures throughout his career.

Linkedin : Brian Chan

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