What Is Social Desirability Bias?

Allison Boelcke

"Social desirability" bias is a term used in scientific research, particularly psychological studies, in which it is believes that a person may respond to interview questions in a way he or she believes is socially acceptable, rather than being completely accurate. The central belief behind this theory tends to be that the person is not meaning to be malicious or deceitful, but is generally afraid to reveal information that he or she believes that society will judge them for. This bias is usually most prevalent with personal questions regarding potentially sensitive issues, such as opinions on race, drug use, or sexual behavior, and may prevent researchers from compiling accurate information for studies.

The Bradley Effect is one example of social desirability bias, as it states people claim in polls to be voting for a minority candidates even though they have no intention of doing so.
The Bradley Effect is one example of social desirability bias, as it states people claim in polls to be voting for a minority candidates even though they have no intention of doing so.

Social psychology is the scientific study of how and why people act in certain ways around other people. This field of psychology uses the term "social desirability" to describe the tendency for people to naturally want others to view them in a favorable way. When answering research questions, a person may feel the need to answer in a way that follows social norms, or a set of beliefs commonly accepted in a particular culture, as a result of the natural human instinct to be socially desirable to others in his or her society. If a person has an opinion that he or she feels may not be acceptable by society, the person may prefer to give an answer that is inaccurate but considered more socially acceptable so he or she is not looked upon negatively.

To reduce the risk of social desirability bias in studies, researchers may use the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. This scale is comprised of a series of questions designed to predict the likelihood of a person answering in a socially desirable, rather than completely truthful, manner. The questions used are about personal traits and attitudes, and if a person does not tend to disclose any even slightly negative answers about him or herself, he or she may be deemed as not acceptable as a valid respondent.

One example of potential social desirability bias is a theory known as the Bradley Effect. This theory originated in the United States in the 1980s and refers to Tom Bradley, an African American politician who ran for Governor of California in 1982. When researchers polled voters, the majority of voters responded that they were going to vote for Bradley; however, the politician ended up losing to his Caucasian opponent, George Deukmejian. Some people believed that the social desirability bias comes into effect when voters are being polled about whether or not they plan to vote for minorities. The central belief behind the Bradley Effect is that some people do not want to come across as prejudiced and will claim they are going to vote for a candidate who is a minority, even if they have no intentions of doing so.

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Discussion Comments

I'm with you, Cageybird. I need to know that my answers will never, ever be seen by anyone besides the researchers before I'll answer honestly. I remember taking some personality tests for a job interview and some of the questions were downright embarrassing. One was "Would you take money from a purse if you thought no one was watching?". I'd like to think I wouldn't, but I really don't know if it was 100% honest. The thought does cross my mind occasionally, but I wouldn't want an employer thinking I have criminal tendencies.

That's probably the case for half the surveys people take over the phone or online. They don't want to "look bad" to the person calling so they give what they think will be the most politically correct answer.

This is a really good reason not to trust polls implicitly. They're not always correct, even with a margin for error, and they are not necessarily even predictive of trends, much less real outcomes.

I hadn't thought about polls and surveys in those terms, but the "social desirability" factor makes a lot of sense in light of some of the results I've seen.

I have rarely felt comfortable taking surveys or tests with personal questions in them. I don't want to give what I call Boy Scout answers, but I'm also afraid someone will judge me harshly if I become brutally honest.

I know I've had some opinions on issues that don't fit in with the majority, and if I'm totally honest I have a few irrational prejudices, too. I'm not proud of that fact, but these studies and polls ask for honest answers and I may just have to swallow my pride and provide them. I'd much rather have people think I'm a saint with absolutely no prejudices in my selfless heart.

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