Most of us like to be liked. We tend to present ourselves in a favorable light; we do not like to appear ill-informed or ill-prepared. So, when we are asked to participate in an online questionnaire, we are eager to please, to provide useful information.
On the other hand, others of us may not trust those gathering the survey data. We want to know how the information we provide will be used, where and to whom it will be disseminated. We need to trust that our answers will not be attached to us or adversely affect us in any way before sharing things about our personal behaviors, opinions or attitudes.
In survey research, social desirability is the tendency of some people to respond in a way that is socially acceptable, a response different than their non-socially acceptable answer would be. They may report attending church more often than they actually do, smoking less, and exercising more. They stretch the truth to make themselves look good in the eyes of those asking the questions.
Some questionnaires are more prone to the effects of social desirability than others, depending on their content. The challenge is in designing the questionnaire so that no one feels embarrassed, singled out or ‘less than’; ensuring respondents are willing to answer questions in a straightforward, honest way.
How does one create a questionnaire that makes individuals feel comfortable about sharing their opinions or experiences with topics like prejudice, bankruptcy or use of illegal substances without fear of repercussion or ‘looking bad’ in the eyes of those asking the questions?
There are individual characteristics like culture and personality that influence socially acceptable responses to questionnaires. Also, social desirability may be influenced by the mode of data collection and item wording.
Some individuals are from cultures pre-disposed to revealing more information about themselves than others. Given that questionnaires have the potential to be cross cultural and global in their reach, it is important to be as inclusive as possible in culturally neutral language and inferences, unless of course that contradicts the purpose of the research.
Social desirability scales, like the Edwards Social Desirability scale, measure the tendency to put oneself in a positive light. This might be administered to the potential sample to assist in selecting those less predisposed to socially acceptable responses.
Studies show that when the questionnaire content is of a more sensitive or threatening nature (e.g., race, illicit drug use, socioeconomic status), online questionnaires decrease the likelihood of social desirability bias. Responses are more truthful, perhaps due to the perceived anonymity of responding to questions online, in the absence of a human being.
The way in which an item is worded can help respondents feel comfortable and safe in sharing their true feelings, rather than sharing what they think people want to hear. Strive to be impartial and non-judgmental when asking questions. The words pro-choice may be less offensive to some than abortion. Ask about driving under the influence instead of drunken driving, etc.
Research suggests that guaranteeing anonymity and confidentiality can minimize socially desirable behaviors and attitudes. Anonymity generally means that the identity of respondents will be completely unknown to anyone. Confidentiality generally means that individuals who respond to a questionnaire will not be associated with their responses in any way without their express permission. This assurance often relieves reluctance to respond to surveys about sensitive topics.
It takes time to design a questionnaire that minimizes the effects of social desirability. Minimize your time and improve the validity of your data. Contact NBRI now at 800-756-6168.
Terrie Nolinske, Ph.D.
National Business Research Institute