Determinants of social desirability bias in sensitive surveys: a literature review

Abstract

Survey questions asking about taboo topics such as sexual activities, illegal behaviour such as social fraud, or unsocial attitudes such as racism, often generate inaccurate survey estimates which are distorted by social desirability bias. Due to self-presentation concerns, survey respondents underreport socially undesirable activities and overreport socially desirable ones. This article reviews theoretical explanations of socially motivated misreporting in sensitive surveys and provides an overview of the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of specific survey methods designed to encourage the respondents to answer more honestly. Besides psychological aspects, like a stable need for social approval and the preference for not getting involved into embarrassing social interactions, aspects of the survey design, the interviewer’s characteristics and the survey situation determine the occurrence and the degree of social desirability bias. The review shows that survey designers could generate more valid data by selecting appropriate data collection strategies that reduce respondents’ discomfort when answering to a sensitive question.

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Correspondence to Ivar Krumpal.

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Krumpal, I. Determinants of social desirability bias in sensitive surveys: a literature review. Qual Quant 47, 2025–2047 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-011-9640-9

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Keywords

  • Sensitive questions
  • Social desirability bias
  • Survey design
  • Survey Methodology
  • Measurement error