Social desirability bias
"To look good to these people, I'm going to say what they want to hear instead of what I really think."
Social desirability bias is defined as the tendency to present oneself favourably in front of other individuals based on certain established social norms. In other words, it is the tendency for people to want to appear more altruistic and kinder to individuals and to society than they actually are [1, 2, 3]. This represents a challenge in a context of scientific research because it can engender a tendency to answer the questions in a study insincerely, in order to appear in a more favourable light to oneself as well as to others. (4)].
To illustrate this bias, consider the example of responses to a survey on immigration: even if people have stereotyped or negative beliefs about immigrants, they will tend to conceal their true opinions because they want to see themselves - and to be perceived - as more moral and altruistic than they are in reality, and therefore more in compliance with politically correct standards established by society.
The social desirability bias represents an information distortion that can take two forms. On the one hand, it can resemble a form of self-delusion, where the person does not communicate completely truthful information about their opinions, but where they are convinced that what they say is true. The goal of this process is to maintain a positive self-image and enhance one’s self-esteem. On the other hand, this bias can also be activated in an impression-management approach, where the person knowingly modifies their responses and actions to appear as a better person in the eyes of other individuals [4, 5]. It is important to note that it is also possible that the impression-management process is put in place by an individual with the aim of controlling how others perceive them in order to, for example, enhance their public image or achieve specific goals . Thus, impression management is not strictly a cognitive bias, although it is related to it.
The social desirability bias is often observed in the context of scientific research and employability, but it can also appear in other circumstances. In job interviews, applicants will often try to appear better qualified for the job than they actually are, an effort to manage impressions. In a scientific research setting, the responses from self-reported questionnaires, where the participants answer questions themselves, are those where the social desirability bias is most apparent. Several researchers suggest using these in parallel with other methods of data collection, such as the direct observation of the participants by the researchers . The most striking consequence of this bias is that it fails to register the real intentions, thoughts, feelings and actions of the individuals interviewed.
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Anticipate this reality in the results of scientific studies.
Make the participants comfortable at the start of a study / interview / job survey and make sure that they understand that they are in a judgment-free environment.
Become aware of our desire to want to look good.
How is this bias measured?
In general, it can be quite difficult to directly detect and measure the social desirability bias. However, it is possible to do this for self-reported questionnaires by emphasizing the anonymity of the data, as well as by measuring the social desirability bias to statistically control its influence on the data . Several scales have been created for this purpose over the past 60 years, the most recent being the Social Desirability Measure composed of 6 items [7, 8]. The purpose of this scale is to measure both aspects of a socially desirable response in a person, that is, exaggerating their positive qualities and minimizing their negative characteristics. The higher a person scores on this scale, the more likely they are to tend to distort their responses in the self-reported questionnaire .
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Chung, Janne & Gary S. Monroe (2003). Exploring social desirability bias. Journal of Business Ethics, 44 (4), 291-302.
 Vallerand, Robert J. (2006). Les attributions: déterminants et conséquences. Dans Robert. J. Vallerand (Dir.) : Les fondements de la psychologie sociale (2e édition), 182-234.
 Zerbe, Wilfred J. & Delroy L. Paulhus (1987). Socially Desirable Responding in Organizational Behavior: A Reconception. Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review, 12(2), 250-264.
 Wasylkiw, Louise (2007). Social Desirability Bias. Dans Roy. F. Baumeister et Kathleen. D. Vohs (Dir.), Encyclopedia of social psychology. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. http://dx.doi.org.proxy.bibliotheques.uqam.ca/10.4135/9781412956253
 Paulhus, Delroy L. & Douglas B. Reid (1991). Enhancement and denial in socially desirable responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 307-317. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
 Leary, Mark R. (2001). Psychology of Impression Management. Dans Neil J. Smelser et Paul B. Baltes (Dir.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Oxford : Pergamon Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-08-043076-7/01727-7
 Nießen, Désirée, Melanie V. Partsch, Christoph J. Kemper & Beatrice Rammstedt (2019). An English-Language Adaptation of the Social Desirability–Gamma Short Scale (KSE-G). Measurement Instruments for the Social Sciences, (2), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s42409-018-0005-1
 Kemper, Christoph J., C. Beierlein, D. Bensch, Kovaleva, D. & Beatrice Rammstedt (2012). Social Desirability Measure. [Database record]. Retrieved from PsycTESTS. doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/t66957-000
Interpersonal level, Intergroup level, Need for self-esteem, Need for social belonging
Christina Popescu is a doctoral student in psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, affiliated with the CIEL Laboratory (Culture, Identity and Language).
Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.
How to cite this entry
Popescu, C. (2021). Social desirability bias, trans. S. D. Renaud. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 3. En ligne : www.shortcogs.com