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Social Desirability Bias in Self-reports of Physical Activity: Is an Exercise Identity the Culprit?

Abstract

Like that of other normative behaviors, much of the research on physical exercise is based on self-reports that are prone to overreporting. While research has focused on identifying the presence and degree of overreporting, this paper fills an important gap by investigating its causes. The explanation based in impression management will be challenged, using an explanation based in identity theory as an arguably better fitting alternative. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: (1) a web instrument using direct survey questions, or (2) a chronological reporting procedure using text messaging. Comparisons to validation data from a reverse record check indicate significantly greater rates of overreporting in the web condition than in the text condition. Results suggest that measurement bias is associated with the importance of the respondents’ exercise identity, prompted by the directness of the conventional survey question. Findings call into question the benefit of self-administration for bias reduction in measurement of normative behaviors.

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Notes

  1. That said, there is potential in this design and future research should consider it further.

  2. All response rates are computed as AAPOR RR 5; there were no ineligible cases nor any cases of unknown eligibility.

  3. This question was preceded with the more general question, “In the past 7 days, how many days have you worked out or exercised?” The intent of this more general question was to achieve less biased measurement of campus recreational sports facility use by allowing the respondent to claim exercise behavior even if it did not occur at campus recreational sports facilities.

  4. Some amount of underreporting is inevitable as respondents forget to report activities. The rate of underreporting does not differ between conditions (10 and 4 % in the text and web modes, respectively; χ2(1) = 2.06; p = 0.15), suggesting that underreporting is not attributable to the characteristics of the mode. As is not a focus of this study, it will not be discussed further here.

  5. Comparisons will be made for both the full sample and for Condition 1. Results are not available for Condition 2 separately given the negligible number of overreporters in this condition.

  6. Although t test comparing these means comes to the same conclusion, they are not preferred as the dependent variables are not normally distributed. Comparisons using t-tests match the results of all subsequent Mann–Whitney–Wilcoxon tests.

  7. There is, of course, nothing natural about a week. Unlike the day, month, and year, the week is perhaps the most socially-constructed unit of time (Zerubavel 1989).

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Correspondence to Philip S. Brenner.

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Brenner, P.S., DeLamater, J.D. Social Desirability Bias in Self-reports of Physical Activity: Is an Exercise Identity the Culprit?. Soc Indic Res 117, 489–504 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-013-0359-y

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Keywords

  • Survey research
  • Measurement
  • Social desirability bias
  • Identity
  • Exercise