Social desirability bias is the need for acceptance. Look at social media if you want to see this need in action. Humans are social creatures. Belonging in a society or a group often means following (written and non-written) social norms in the way you dress, speak, and how you respond to questions.

You’ve probably encountered this many times but weren’t aware it had a name. So let’s talk about what it is, some examples of social desirability bias, and how to reduce it.


Understanding Social Desirability Bias

To start, let’s define social desirability bias. Social desirability bias in psychology is defined as:

“a tendency to present one’s self in a favorable way rather than to give accurate answers. In other words, participants have a tendency to answer in ways that make them look good in the eyes of others, regardless of the accuracy of their answers”

3 Social Desirability Bias Example Scenarios

Have you ever stretched the truth a little because you wanted to gain the person’s approval asking the question? Here are 3 social desirability bias examples:

  • When your doctor asks you how active you are at a health exam, you rounded up the number to make it seem you’re more active than you are.
  • At a company dinner, your colleagues ask you if you like spicy food and you say yes, even though it’s not your favorite.

Some people might argue social desirability bias is good in certain social situations to keep the peace or appear polite.

But, social desirability bias might be a roadblock if you’re doing an analysis of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) in your company. Here’s an example of social desirability bias at work:

  • When your manager asks if you are excited to join one of the new employee resources groups, and you say yes even though you might not be interested in joining one at all.
Social Desirability Bias

Social Desirability Bias in DEI Research

DEI research helps co.s gain an understanding of how people feel about specific issues. So, why is social desirability bias a problem for surveys or focus groups?

The chances of social desirability bias increase when you talk about sensitive issues like disability, race, inclusion, sexual orientation, religion, etc…especially in a diverse group of employees. When people are put in the spot, they might show their social desirability response bias by:

  • Managing the way people see them…by answering questions putting themselves in the best light possible. Psychologists call this desire “impression management” or the conscious presentation of oneself to please an audience. In this case, their co-workers. No one wants to be known as the “bad person” at work.
  • Skewing their responses to what they think is the socially and culturally acceptable answer, especially if it’s a face-to-face interview where they can pick up the interviewer’s social cues.
  • Hiding their true feelings about sensitive issues to not “make waves” with their colleagues.

If employees do this during your DEI surveys or focus groups, the social desirability bias can skew your data, making it less valuable.


How to Reduce Social Desirability Bias in Your Research

There is a way to gather good data by reducing social desirability bias in your company’s DEI research. Here 3 suggestions:

1. Check your questions for biased words

Good surveys start with a great questionnaire. An excellent way to avoid social desirability bias in questionnaires is to keep questions as neutral, unbiased, and non-threatening as possible. This way, your respondent doesn’t feel threatened or embarrassed when answering them.

Pro Tip: Because we’re human, biased words can unconsciously make their way into your questionnaire. Using software to scan surveys or other hiring content can help with this. Ongig’s Text Analyzer scans your text for biased words and offers inclusive alternatives. 


2. Use anonymous surveys

Many people feel safer expressing their feelings if they are anonymous. Try doing your DEI survey online where your respondents are not affected by the presence or body language of the researcher. 

Pro Tip: Harvard’s Implicit Bias project has multiple “Implicit Association Tests” you can use to measure bias in your org. You can learn more about this project and other “debiasing tools” here: 6 Ways to Debias your Language.


3. Choose different ways to collect data

If you have to do a focus group discussion, you can ask participants to anonymously answer highly sensitive questions after the session (e.g., a post-session survey). Another suggestion is to word sensitive questions indirectly. This way, your participants will feel more comfortable answering because the questions don’t directly refer to them.

We might not be able to eliminate social desirability bias because acceptance is part of human nature. But, you can reduce social desirability bias with neutral wording in questionnaires and different data collection methods (e.g., a 3rd party facilitator). Doing this will allow you to get a good snapshot of your company’s DEI situation, so you can use that information to create successful diversity initiatives. 

Pro Tip: Felicity Menzies, CEO, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant at Include-Empower has a great list of Questions to Ask a Diversity and Inclusion Focus Group that might help. They’re even divided into different categories (e.g., Respect, Belonging, Empowered, and Progression).

Why does social desirability bias occur?

Social desirability bias is pretty common in surveys and questionnaires. It happens when people give answers they think are socially acceptable or “good,” instead of their true opinions. But why does this happen? Let’s break it down.

First off, we humans like to be liked. We want others to see us in a positive light. So when answering survey questions, we might lean towards giving answers that we think will make us look good. This could mean saying we do things we know we should do, like exercise regularly or eat healthily, even if we don’t always stick to it.

Another reason is that we often worry about what others might think of us. Imagine being asked about something embarrassing, like how often you binge-watch TV shows instead of working out. You might want to fib a little to avoid judgment.

Social Influences

Social influences play a big role too. If we believe that certain behaviors are highly valued in society, we’re more likely to say we do them, whether we actually do or not. For example, if everyone around us talks about how important volunteering is, we might want to say we volunteer, even if we don’t.

Sometimes, it’s not just about wanting to look good. It can also be about not wanting to admit to doing something frowned upon. Say the survey asks about illegal activities or sensitive topics like drug use. Even if it’s anonymous, we might still hesitate to admit to it, leading us to give false answers.

And hey, let’s not forget about situational factors. Maybe the survey was taken during a class where the course leader is known for having certain views. We might adjust our answers because of what we think they want to hear.

So, you see, social desirability bias sneaks into our responses for various reasons. Understanding why it happens helps researchers come up with ways to combat it in future studies. And who knows, maybe with some clever techniques, we’ll get closer to the truth in our surveys.

Social Desirability Bias on chalk board

Types of social desirability bias

When it comes to social desirability bias, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. There are different types of this bias that can sneak into our responses. So, let’s take a closer look at them.

Self-Presentation Bias: 

This is when we want to present ourselves in the best possible light. We might exaggerate our positive traits or downplay our flaws to make ourselves look better. For example, if a survey asks about our exercise habits, we might say we work out more often than we actually do to seem healthier.

Impression Management Bias: 

Similar to self-presentation bias, impression management bias happens when we try to control how others perceive us. We might tailor our responses based on what we think the surveyor wants to hear or what we believe is socially acceptable. For instance, if the survey is about environmental practices, we might overstate our efforts to reduce waste to appear more environmentally conscious.

Social Attribution Bias: 

This occurs when we attribute socially desirable traits or behaviors to ourselves, even if they don’t accurately reflect our actions or beliefs. For example, if a survey asks about volunteering, we might say we volunteer regularly because we want to be seen as altruistic, even if we haven’t volunteered in months.

Normative Bias: 

Normative bias happens when we conform to social norms or values, influencing our responses. We might answer survey questions based on what we believe is socially acceptable rather than our true opinions or experiences. For instance, if a survey asks about attitudes towards a controversial topic, we might align our responses with societal norms rather than expressing our genuine beliefs.

These types of social desirability bias can creep into various aspects of our lives, from surveys and questionnaires to personal interactions. Recognizing them is the first step in mitigating their influence on our responses and improving the accuracy of research data. In future research, exploring alternative approaches and using techniques like the randomized response technique or indirect questioning can help reduce the impact of social desirability bias and yield more truthful answers.


Why social desirability bias matters

So, why should we care about social desirability bias? Well, let me break it down for you.

Imagine you’re doing a survey about drug use among college students. You want to know the real deal, right? Are students actually using drugs? But here’s the thing – if those students feel like they might face judgment for admitting to drug use, they might not give truthful answers. Instead, they might say they don’t use drugs when they actually do. This skews the results and gives us a false picture of what’s really going on.

Now, let’s zoom out a bit. Think about all the surveys and studies out there in the world of research. They cover everything from mental health to personal habits to social issues. If social desirability bias is messing with the answers people give, it means we might not be getting accurate data. And if our data isn’t accurate, well, that can lead to some pretty big problems.


The Effect of Social Desirability Bias

For starters, it can affect the decisions that policymakers make. If they’re working off flawed information, they might not create policies that actually address the real issues. Plus, researchers rely on accurate data to build on what we know and dive deeper into topics. So, if the data is off, it can slow down progress and lead us down the wrong paths in future research.

But it’s not just about the big picture stuff. Social desirability bias can also impact individuals. Let’s say you’re taking a survey about your mental health, but you worry about what the surveyor might think if you admit to feeling down sometimes. You might give answers that don’t reflect how you’re really feeling, which means you might not get the help or support you need.

So, social desirability bias matters. It’s not just a little hiccup in the world of research – it’s a big deal that can affect everything from policy decisions to individual well-being. That’s why researchers are always looking for ways to spot it, minimize its impact, and get closer to the truth in their studies.


5 Examples of Social Desirability Bias 

Social desirability bias might sound like a mouthful, but let’s make it simple with some real-life examples.

1. Job Interviews: 

Ever been in a job interview and tried to make yourself sound like the perfect candidate? That’s social desirability bias in action. You might exaggerate your skills or downplay your weaknesses to make yourself seem more desirable to the employer.

2. Online Dating Profiles: 

When creating an online dating profile, people often highlight their best qualities and interests while downplaying any less desirable traits. They want to present themselves in the best possible light to attract potential matches, even if it means stretching the truth a little.


3. Health Surveys: 

Let’s say you’re filling out a survey about your eating habits and physical activity. You might report healthier behaviors than you actually engage in, especially if you know that eating well and exercising regularly are socially valued behaviors.

4. Social Media Posts: 

Have you ever posted a photo on social media that makes your life look picture-perfect, even if things aren’t going so great behind the scenes? People often curate their social media profiles to show only the most desirable aspects of their lives, creating a distorted view of reality.

5. Anonymous Surveys: 

Even in surveys where responses are anonymous, social desirability bias can still creep in. For example, if the survey asks about sensitive topics like drug use or mental health, respondents might be reluctant to provide truthful answers for fear of judgment or repercussions.

These examples show how social desirability bias can influence our behavior and responses in various contexts. Recognizing when it occurs is the first step towards minimizing its impact and obtaining more accurate data in research studies.


How to detect social desirability bias

Detecting social desirability bias might seem tricky, but with a few tricks up your sleeve, you can spot it like a pro. Let’s find out how.

  • Analyze Response Patterns: 

Take a close look at the responses you’re getting. Do they seem too good to be true? If everyone is reporting perfect behavior or overly positive traits, it could be a sign of social desirability bias at play.

  • Compare Self-Reports with Other Data: 

If possible, compare self-report data with other sources of information. For example, if a survey asks about physical activity levels, compare those self-reported numbers with objective measures like fitness tracker data or gym attendance records.

  • Use Indirect Questioning Techniques: 

Instead of asking direct questions that could trigger social desirability bias, try using indirect questioning techniques. For example, instead of asking, “Do you ever engage in illegal drug use?” you could ask, “How many people in your social circle do you think engage in illegal drug use?” This can help bypass the need for socially desirable responses.

  • Look for Inconsistencies: 

Keep an eye out for inconsistencies in responses. For example, if someone reports being highly active on social media but also claims to prioritize spending time with family, it might be worth investigating further.

  • Utilize Social Desirability Scales: 

There are scales specifically designed to measure social desirability bias, such as the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. Incorporating these scales into your research can help quantify the extent of social desirability bias in your data.

  • Consider Situational Factors: 

Think about the context in which the survey or study is being conducted. Are there any situational factors that might influence respondents to give socially desirable answers? For example, if the survey is taking place in a classroom setting with the course leader present, respondents might give answers they think are expected of them.

Using these strategies, you can become more adept at detecting social desirability bias in your research and ensuring that your data accurately reflects the true opinions and behaviors of your participants.


The Ethical Implications of Social Desirability Bias

It’s not just about getting the facts straight; there are some deeper ethical concerns to think about.

First off, imagine you’re taking a survey about your mental health. You want to be honest, but you’re worried about what the surveyor might think if you admit to feeling down sometimes. So, you might give answers that make you seem happier than you really are. But here’s the thing – if everyone does that, the survey won’t show the true picture. That’s not fair to you or to the people using the survey results to make decisions.

Now, let’s say the survey is about something more serious, like drug use. If you’re afraid of getting in trouble for admitting to using drugs, you might not tell the truth. But what if the survey is a tool to decide where to allocate resources for addiction treatment? If the data is skewed because people are scared to be honest, it could mean that the people who need help the most don’t get it.

Ethical concerns also come into play when researchers don’t take steps to minimize social desirability bias. If they know that people might give answers they think are expected of them, but they don’t do anything about it, that’s a problem. It’s like letting misinformation spread.

So, what can we do about it? 

Well, researchers need to be aware of social desirability bias and take steps to minimize its impact. That could mean using techniques like indirect questioning or making surveys anonymous. It’s also important for researchers to be transparent about the limitations of their data and to use it responsibly.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about getting the right answers – it’s about doing right by the people providing those answers. And that means being mindful of the ethical implications of social desirability bias in research.


Raising Awareness About Social Desirability Bias

Picture this: You’re filling out a survey, and you want to give the “right” answers. Maybe you want to impress the surveyor, or perhaps you’re worried about what others might think if you’re completely honest. That’s social desirability bias in action – and it’s more common than you might think.

So, why should we care about raising awareness about it? Well, for starters, knowing about social desirability bias helps us understand why people might not always give truthful answers in surveys or studies. If we’re aware of it, we can take steps to minimize its impact and get more accurate data.

Think about it this way: Imagine a world where everyone knows about social desirability bias. People would be more mindful of their answers, and researchers could design better surveys to account for it. That means the data we collect would be more reliable, leading to better decisions and policies based on that data.

Raising awareness about social desirability bias also helps us recognize its effects in everyday life. Whether it’s in job interviews, online dating profiles, or even social media posts, understanding social desirability bias can help us see through the filters and get a clearer picture of reality.

So, how can we spread the word? We can start by talking about it – in classrooms, in conversations with friends, or even on social media. By sharing information about social desirability bias, we empower people to recognize it and make more informed choices.

Raising awareness about social desirability bias isn’t just about getting the facts out there – it’s about fostering a culture of honesty and transparency. And that’s something we can all get behind.


How Social Desirability Bias May Vary Across Different Cultural Contexts and Ethnic Groups

Social desirability bias can vary depending on the cultural context and ethnic group.

Imagine you’re in one country where being modest is highly valued. If you’re asked about your achievements, you might downplay them to seem humble, even if you’re secretly proud. That’s social desirability bias in action, influenced by the cultural value of humility.

Now, hop over to another country where people are encouraged to speak up and show confidence. In that context, you might be more likely to talk yourself up a bit in a survey or interview, wanting to align with the cultural norm of self-assuredness.

But it’s not just about cultural differences – ethnic groups within the same country can also have their own social norms and values that affect how social desirability bias plays out. For example, in some communities, there might be certain topics that are considered taboo or off-limits. If a survey touches on one of those topics, people from that ethnic group might be less likely to give honest answers.

And let’s not forget about social influences. Maybe you’re with a group of friends or family members who all have similar beliefs or values. In that situation, you might feel pressure to conform to their expectations, influencing your responses in a survey or study.

Understanding how social desirability bias can vary across different cultural contexts and ethnic groups is crucial for researchers. It means they can design surveys and studies that take these variations into account, getting a more accurate picture of people’s thoughts and behaviors.

So, whether you’re talking to someone from a different country or a different ethnic background, remember – social desirability bias might show up in different ways, but being aware of it helps us see through the cultural and social lenses and get closer to the truth.


Impact of Social Desirability Bias on Research Findings

Social desirability bias can throw a curveball into your research findings.

Think about sensitive topics like drug use or mental health. If people feel embarrassed or worried about being judged, they might not give truthful answers. Instead, they might say what they think sounds good or what they think you want to hear. That’s social desirability bias in action – it’s like wearing a mask to fit in with what’s expected.

Now, let’s zoom out a bit and imagine this happening not just in one survey, but in study after study, across different topics and groups of people. It can mess with the data big time. So, researchers might think they’re seeing one thing when, in reality, it’s not the full story.

And here’s the kicker: social desirability bias can lead to some pretty significant differences in research findings. If people aren’t giving honest answers, it can skew the results and lead researchers down the wrong path. It’s like trying to navigate with a faulty compass – you might think you’re heading in the right direction, but you’re actually way off course.

So, what can we do about it? Well, awareness is key. Researchers need to be aware of the potential influence of social desirability bias and take steps to minimize its impact. That might mean using indirect questioning techniques, ensuring confidentiality, or even using validated scales to measure social desirability bias itself.

By shining a light on the impact of social desirability bias on research findings, we can work towards more accurate data, better understanding, and ultimately, more informed decisions based on that research.

Why I Wrote This?

Ongig’s Text Analyzer software helps eliminate boring and biased job descriptions. We’d also be happy to analyze your DEI surveys or focus group questions to show you examples of biased language you might want to remove.



  1. Social Desirability Bias (by IResearchNet)
  2. Impression Management (by ScienceDirect)

by in Diversity and Inclusion