Social desirability or prestige bias

The final big problem with regard to questionnaires is that people do not always provide true answers about themselves; that is, the results represent what the respondents report to feel or believe, rather than what they actually feel or believe. There are several possible reasons for this, and the most salient one is what is usually termed the social desirability or prestige bias. Questionnaire items are often 'transparent,' that is, respondents can have a fairly good guess about what the desirable/acceptable/expected answer is, and some of them will provide this response even if it is not true. The most extreme example of a 'transparent' question I have come across was in the official U.S. visa application form (OF 156):

"Have you ever participated in genocide?"

Although most questionnaire items are more subtle than this, trying to present ourselves in a good light is a natural human tendency, and this is very bad news for the survey researcher: The resulting bias poses a serious threat to the validity of the data. We should note that this threat is not necessarily confined to 'subjective' attitudinal items only. As Oppenheim (1992) warns us, even factual questions are often loaded with prestige: people might claim that they read more than they do, bathe more often than is true, spend more time with their children, or give more to charity than actually happens, etc. In general, questions concerning age, race, income, state of health, marital status, educational background, sporting achievements, social standing, criminal behavior, sexual activity, and bad habits such as smoking or drinking, are all vulnerable (Newell, 1993; Wilson & McClean, 1994).

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