Survey research methods allow researchers to address specific questions that cannot be answered using secondary sources of information. Compared with other research methods, surveys can be relatively inexpensive and yield a great deal of data. They can get at thoughts, feelings and behaviors that cannot easily be observed. While surveys have several methodological benefits, one main potential drawback is that participants may not talk about themselves or respond to questions in a truthful manner.
Social desirability bias is the tendency for people to respond in ways that they feel are appropriate or socially acceptable. In research, that means that some behaviors are vulnerable to being under-reported and others over-reported. For example, in marketing research we are often interested in product usage across various consumer segments. If we are asking about behaviors related to eating fast food, gambling, alcohol consumption, tobacco use or impulse buying then we have to realize there could be a tendency for some people to under-report these types of behaviors. If we are asking about exercising, eating healthy, voting or donating to charities we have to be aware of potential over-reporting.
Why a Social Desirability Bias?
Most people are not even aware they are responding in biased ways. To an extent social desirability bias tends to occur because some people have this bias as a personality trait, especially where sensitive topics are concerned. However, basic social psychological motives are pervasive influences for everyone. Gaining social approval is a fundamental social psychological motive and there is potential for study participants to want to “look good” to the researcher or interviewer.
Additionally, with so much information coming at us all the time and so many demands on our minds, the drive to conserve mental energy is also a pervasive influence on the way participants respond to questions. For example, sometimes survey respondents simply answer “yes” to all the questions. For others giving a “public” response is simply that – their response for the public even if deviated somewhat from their personal truth.
While social desirability bias can lead to research results that may be somewhat skewed, there are ways that researchers can either reduce or tease out those biased effects on the data.
Ways to Reduce the Effects of Social Desirability Bias in Marketing Research
Mode of Survey
If the questions are sensitive, emphasis on anonymity and removing the presence of the researcher can reduce bias. When asking about topics that are susceptible to social judgments the use self-administered questionnaires (either on the web or in paper form) may be more appropriate than a telephone or face-to-face survey.
Wording questions in ways that avoid influence on responses is extremely important and often overlooked by non-professional researchers. So when we ask a question such as, “To what extent do you make a purchase on impulse?” … a low score could reflect a desire for the respondent to present themselves in a rational light just as much as it could reflect their actual behavior. Consequently, it is more difficult to interpret the results to this question than it would be for a question such as “How often do you make purchases that are only on your shopping list?”
Indirect Questioning (Structured and Projective Techniques)
To avoid the bias that comes from disclosing information about the self, researchers often ask structured questions that require answers from the perspective of another person or a group of people. For example, questions may be posed such as “what type of person shops at store X” or “under what circumstances do you think people buy on impulse?” The purpose of using indirect questioning is to remove the distortion that occurs when revealing information about the self. The idea is that one is left with the research respondent’s “true” feelings.
Measure Social Desirability
For decades researchers in the social sciences have been aware of the social desirability bias and the need to tease out those effects on results. Several valid questionnaires exist to measure the extent to which individuals may distort responses to present themselves in a more favorable light. Some of these tests include the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding and Palhus Deception Scales.
Awareness of the Social Desirability Bias
In summary, for various reasons some people are prone to respond in ways that make them look more socially acceptable. This occurs because people may have a personality tendency toward this bias, they are influenced by a need for social approval or they simply want to facilitate smooth interactions with the public and quickly move on without much mental effort.
Survey research methods are always one step removed from the behavior or attitude. In other words, survey research asks people to report what they do and report how they think and feel about various topics. Within marketing research, consumers are not always aware of their usage of services or consumption of goods. This lack of awareness coupled with the need to feel good about oneself in a social context can lead to distorted responses to research questions. Although social desirability bias occurs in survey research, skilled professionals and academics have many tools to reduce or tease out the effects of biased responses.
Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. She can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or [email protected].