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Social Desirability Bias

What is social desirability bias?

Social desirability bias reflects a respondent's propensity to answer in a way perceived as socially acceptable rather than the respondent's genuine opinion or behavior.


Social desirability bias can cause research to be vulnerable to the over- or under-reporting of certain behaviors.

Researchers inquiring about behaviors and consumption will encounter social desirability bias when society perceives the research-focus behaviors as especially desirable or undesirable.

For example, when asked about purchases of sustainable or organic products, respondents subject to social desirability bias will—in aggregate—over-report this desirable behavior. On the other hand, a survey about the consumption of sweets or fast food might result in respondents under-reporting this behavior.

How can you avoid social desirability bias?

Leverage indirect questions

To limit social desirability bias, avoid asking personally confronting questions.

For example, instead of "What do you do in case X happens?" ask, "What do people usually do when X happens?" This question is less personal and reduces the respondent's propensity to be subject to social desirability bias. 

Assure and emphasize anonymity 

For issues potentially subject to social desirability bias, anonymize your respondents to curb the effect of this bias.

Avoid loaded questions

To minimize social desirability bias, you must be neutral in tone and phrasing when asking questions. The need to do so is only sometimes immediately apparent, though.

Watch out for negative connotations, such as "impulse," "emotional," "purposeful," and so forth. Be more descriptive to avoid this.

Measure the effect

When confronted with social desirability bias, be sure to quantify the effect. Only when measuring the social desirability bias in your context can you control for it and make your data useful.

Popular methods include the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding, the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, and the Palhus Deception Scales.

Further reading

"Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness" Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein

Paul Hanke
Post by Paul Hanke
October 26, 2022

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