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.
What Is 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 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 asnwering 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 being accepted is part of human nature. But, you can reduce social desirability bias with a neutrally worded questionnaire 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 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.
- Social Desirability Bias (by IResearchNet)
- Impression Management (by ScienceDirect)
- QUESTIONS TO ASK A DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION FOCUS GROUP (by Felicity Menzies)