Quality & Quantity

, Volume 46, Issue 5, pp 1601–1616 | Cite as

Asking sensitive questions: the impact of forgiving wording and question context on social desirability bias

  • Anatol-Fiete Näher
  • Ivar KrumpalEmail author


Sensitive questions are prone to systematic measurement error due to the respondents’ social desirability concerns. Literature on empirical social research often recommends either positive “loading” of sensitive questions, e.g. using “forgiving” wording, or manipulating the question context to reduce social desirability bias. We derive theoretical explanations of how manipulations of question wording and context could elicit more socially undesirable answers in sensitive surveys. In an experimental online survey (N = 1,176), we evaluate the effects of (1) forgiving wording and (2) question context on social desirability bias in different sensitive questions. The empirical evidence on the assumed bias-reducing effects shows inconsistent results. It is indicated however, that the perceived social norm has the strongest and most consistent effect on the respondents’ propensity to self-report socially undesirable behavior.


Social desirability Sensitive questions Context effects 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of LeipzigLeipzigGermany

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