social desirability bias

Accounting for Social Desirability Bias in Online Research

An article posted back in 2011 in Research Design Review“13 Factors Impacting the Quality of Qualitative Research” – delineated three broad areas and 13 specific components of qualitative research design that can influence the quality of research outcomes.  One factor, under the broad category of “The Environment,” is the “presence of observers/interviewers as well as other participants.”  In other words, how does the inclusion of other people – whether it be client observers, interviewers, fellow participants, videographers, or note takers – affect the attitudes, behaviors, and, responses we gain from our research efforts?  Does research, almost by definition, create an artificial social context where participants/respondents seek others’ approval leading to a false understanding of their realities?

Social desirability bias is not a new concern in research design and its influence on the ultimate usefulness of our qualitative and quantitative research has been the focus of attention for quite some time.  Tourangeau, Rips, and Rasinski (2000) discuss social desirability in the context of sensitive questions:

“[The] notion of sensitive questions presupposes that respondents believe there are norms defining desirable attitudes and behaviors, and that they are concerned enough about these norms to distort their answers to avoid presenting themselves in an unfavorable light.”

Nancarrow and Brace – in their article “Saying the ‘right thing’: Coping with social desirability in marketing research” (2000) – address the under- and over-reporting associated with social desirability bias and outline numerous techniques that have been used to deal with the problem – e.g., emphasizing the need for honesty, promises of confidentiality, and question manipulation by softening the suggestion that the respondent should know the answer to a particular question or behave in certain way.

Online technology and the ever-growing online research designs that are emerging – within social media, mobile, bulletin boards, communities, and survey research –  have allayed social-desirability concerns.  The belief among some researchers is that one of the beauties of the virtual world is that inhabitants basically live in solitude, away from the influences of a social reality.  Paul Rubenstein of Accelerant Research has actually stated that a key advantage to online qualitative research is the obliteration of social desirability bias and hence the heightened validity of online vs. offline designs:

“[The] Internet affords a stronger sense of anonymity [compared to in-person interviewing] among study participants and typical response biases such as social desirability and other “faking strategies” are virtually eliminated online.  Qualitative data collected online tend to be “brutally honest” in nature as respondents feel wrapped in a cocoon of privacy and facelessness and have no apprehension about telling a moderator anything.”

The idea that researchers who design online studies can ignore potential bias due to social desirability seems misguided.  In fact, Read Full Text