Responding to Socially Desirable and Undesirable Topics: Different Types of Response Behaviour?

Henrik Andersen, Jochen Mayerl


Social desirability describes the tendency of respondents to present themselves in a more positive light than is accurate and is a serious concern in surveys. If researchers are better able to understand the underlying mechanisms responsible for social desirability bias, they may be able to devise ways to identify and correct for it. One possibility involves determining whether social desirability is more of a deliberate ‘editing’ of responses or an automatic, perhaps ‘self-deceptive’, act. Then researchers could potentially flag conspicuously fast or slow responses to improve data quality. We outline dual-process-related theoretical arguments for both scenarios and test their plausibility using data gathered in a tablet-based CASI survey of pre-service teachers in Germany that were asked to assess their suitability for their chosen profession. Our analysis involves the use of fixed-effects multilevel models that enable us to control for unobserved differences between respondent- and item-characteristics while also examining cross-level interactions between the predictors at various levels. Specifically, we examine the classic respondent- (i.e. need for social approval) and item-related characteristics (i.e. trait desirability) associated with social desirability bias, as well as the speed at which the respondents gave their answers. Doing so allows us to observe under what circumstances the respondents tended to overstate positive characteristics as well as understate negative ones. We find evidence for social desirability as an automatic as well as a deliberate response behaviour. However, the mechanism responsible for determining whether social desirability occurs automatically or deliberately seems to be whether the item content is desirable or undesirable. Desirable traits seem to elicit faster socially desirable responses whereas undesirable traits seem to elicit slower socially desirable responses.


social desirability, sensitive questions, response latencies, paradata, response bias, survey research, multilevel models

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Copyright (c) 2018 Henrik Andersen, Jochen Mayerl

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