As a rule, people want to portray the best versions of themselves – even when it is not completely truthful. In behavioral economics, we call this social desirability bias: a tendency to respond in ways we feel are appropriate or socially acceptable.
On platforms like Instagram, influencers show the ‘healthy’ food they cook and eat on a daily basis, but really live off coffee and granola bars behind the scenes. In research, participants often over-report ‘good’ behavior and under report ‘bad behavior.’
Social desirability bias can skew your results of everything from an employee review to a customer satisfaction survey; respondents unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) misrepresent their behavior, attitudes or reactions. Often, social desirability bias occurs when individuals try to avoid the judgment of their peers and feelings of shame about sensitive topics.
Some topics are notorious for encouraging social desirability bias: self-reported personality traits, income level, medical issues, food behaviors, religion, patriotism, bigotry, illegal acts, physical appearance, or even intellectual achievements.
Some tips from research experts to mitigate the impact of social desirability bias:
In one of our recent studies, we asked employees at a waste processing company what the most important values are to create a beneficial and supportive work environment. No surprise, for most employees, safety was the most important value. But was it really driving employee satisfaction? No. Our advanced analytics determined recognition of a job well done and respect drove overall employee satisfaction more than safety.
Social desirability bias is one of many quirks of human behavior that can throw a wrench in your research findings if not circumvented properly. However, engaging in some of these techniques can help you better understand the truth behind participant responses and potentially prevent the negative consequences of poorly constructed research.
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