Social Desirability Bias
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 7, 2021
We are social creatures that seek acceptance. This internal drive motivates social desirability bias.
A hallmark of personal growth is self-monitoring. Honest reflection over thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to identify and correct errors. Wellbeing enthusiast, such as myself, preach reflection but notoriously fail to warn of underlying biases that distort reflections. Social desirability bias (SDB) is a powerful distorting factor, tainting self-appraisals. Scientist and psychologist have struggled for decades with the impact of social desirability biases on research. This interfering agent casts a shadow on previous findings. Early research relied on self-reports of mental states and behaviors. These subjective and deceitful self-reports then poisoned meticulously designed research. Regretfully, social desirability bias is not confined to the laboratory. We all are influenced by social norms. Oblivious to our unconscious drive to deceive, we harm relationships and impede personal growth.
In a recent article at Fast Company, Pamela Fuller wrote, “at any given moment, we are faced with 11 billion bits of information and our brain can only actively process 40 of them. There’s a huge delta there, and the way our brains handle the gap is through cognitive shortcuts. While these cognitive shortcuts can help us navigate the world, they can also lead to incomplete, overly simplistic, and sometimes even problematic thinking” (2021).
In a small midwestern town, following the acquittal of a man charged for the murder of his wife, a juror told reporters, “I knew before the trial began that he was innocent because the victim’s parents didn’t believe he did it.” We’re all guilty of gross neglect of critical thinking. We take cognitive shortcuts to arrive at simplistic solutions. We discard reason for simpler, less costly processes—bias.
A significant form of bias leading to both impression management and self-deception is social desirability bias.
What is Social Desirability Bias?
Social Desirability Bias is the tendency to present ourselves in a positive manner, aligned to culturally accepted standards of behavior. We dishonestly report or hide acts of violence, illicit drug use, and racism. However, social desirability bias influences individual interactions on a much wider scale than a few stigmatized topics. We also cater the deception to the particulars of the audience.
Social desirability bias is motivated by a need for acceptance. We present ourselves in ways we perceive acceptable to the observer. A person will answer questions on racism much differently if the person asking is a minority (Klar et al. 2016, P. 435). In individual interactions, we act on what we believe the other would likely approve (theory of mind). We respond to please the other person rather than honestly communicate thoughts and feelings. Social desirability biased responses can be maddening. Personal trainers, therapists, and even lovers don’t want to be pleased by words. They prefer words that represent reality so differences or problems can be discussed and resolved.
Is Social Desirability Bias Bad?
Bias is integrated into our very being. We could not operate without these frames of reference. We need foundational beliefs to process the constant flow of information. In his book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow wrote, “human behavior is the product of an endless stream of perceptions, feelings and thoughts, at both the conscious and unconscious levels” (2013, location 236). Biased thinking is neither good nor bad. It is human—part of our greatness and fallibility. Without cognitive shortcuts, our lives would skid to a halt, unable to process the endless stream of information.
Social desirability bias is essential for connection, utilizing cognitive strategies and relying on perceptions (theory of mind), we predict what others need and want. Closeness is stymied by dishonesty. We can’t predict correctly when messages are false. However, some dishonesty is always present. Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald wrote, “Of course, honesty may be an overrated virtue. If you decide to report all of your flaws to friends and apply a similar standard of total honesty when talking to others about their shortcomings, you might soon find that you no longer have friends.” They continue, “Our daily lives demand, and generally receive, repeated lubrication with a certain amount of untruthfulness, which keeps the gears of social interaction meshing smoothly” (2016, p. 28-29).
The interweaving of honesty and dishonest communication is complex. Fudging on the truth, conflicts with our self-perception as a person of integrity. As Dan Ariely puts it, “we cheat up to the level that allows us to retrain our self-image as reasonable honest individuals” (2013, location 304). Unconscious bias allows for uncomfortable cognitive shortcuts to work beneath the surface without disrupting a favorable self-image. By not acknowledging the conflict, we keep cognitive dissonance to a minimum.
Cognitive dissonance is created when beliefs, thoughts, or behaviors conflict. The dissonance requires cognitive resources to suppress the conflict.
Banaji and Greenwald’s suggestion that honesty is overrated, and that dishonesty is serviceable may make us shutter. Honesty is culturally herald as an untouchable virtue. We want others to be honest and see ourselves as honest. Honesty is judged as socially desirable; therefore, we are dishonest about our dishonesty, willfully blind to what operates in plain sight.
For more on this topic see Flourishing Life Society article Cognitive Dissonance.
When does Social Desirability Bias Go Bad?
Unfortunately, as with many other unconscious processes, biases are susceptible to malfeasant infiltrations. Our shortcuts interfere with personal growth, humanistic principles, and close relationships. Because biases go largely undetected, we fail to account for them. Our conscious mind, instead of correcting faulty, tends to justify.
We “cling tenaciously to … beliefs in the face of hostile evidence,” warns Thomas Gilovich. In his book How We Know What Isn’t So, he explains that many of the imperfect “cognitions and inferential tools might never surface.” He adds that, “the world doesn’t play fair. Instead of providing us with clear information that would enable us to ‘know’ better, it presents us with messy data that are random, incomplete, unrepresentative, ambiguous, inconsistent, unpalatable, or secondhand” (1993).
Ambiguous facts leave enough latitude to weave a deceptive story, avoiding difficult acceptance of errors that may topple beautiful self-portraits. However, according to several studies, these self-deceptions deter self-improvement. A paper examining social desirability and assertive behavior found that those that scored high on a social desirability scale (Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale), rated themselves as significantly more assertive and significantly less anxious than those that scored low on the social desirability scale. Yet, according to independent observations, those scoring high on the social desirability scale were no more assertive than the others and after assertive training showed less improvement (Kiecolt-Glaser and Murray, 2005, p. 240).
When social desirability bias is unmitigated by reality, the bias is protected. Those who score high in social desirability are overly positive in their self-descriptions, defensive about displaying personal inadequacies, and overly concerned about the opinions of others. These characteristics further impede growth. They set low goals, adopt risk avoidance practices, and dodge opportunities for constructive feedback (2005, p. 240).
As Robert Trivers aptly puts it, “real me is seen as ugly me by self-deceived me” (2014, location 473).
In a 2003 article on social desirability bias, researchers Janne Chung and Gary S. Monroe explain that “individuals that feel more ethical relative to their peers may feel no pressure to improve their own ethical conduct.”. Data suggests that many people hold two beliefs when evaluating ethics. First, they exaggerate their own superior ethics and second, they discount the ethics of their peers (2004, 291-292). These manipulated comparisons help justify fudging on ethical decisions, explaining questionable behaviors as necessary to compete with unscrupulous others.
How Can We Limit Social Desirability Bias?
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ~C.G. Jung
The first step towards mediating unconscious drives is acknowledging their existence. Many unconscious processes exist outside of conscious availability. We can’t pull them to the surface for critical examination. We can, however, be conscious of their existence and influence.
Dan Ariely explains that “once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes” (2013, location 159).
We must courageously catch ourselves in the lie. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain, “When we ourselves are forced to face our own mistakes and take responsibility for them, the result can be an exhilarating, liberating experience” (2020, location 3447). Staring bias in the face, pealing away self-protecting deception, is no simple task. Ariely’s restructured environment would certainly include finding people that kindly embrace our imperfect selves. Dishonesty that protects us from the retaliating brutes is understandable, part of our survival instinct. We restructure our environments by building places of safety. Our emotional wellness depends on safe environments. We find people that are safe and engage in compassionate self-reflections.
Robert Trivers suggests a practice of meditation. He wrote, “If we really want to learn from experience in the sense of transforming the possibility that we will make the same mistake again, just looking at the phenomenon and saying “there goes good old self-deception again” does not do the trick. One has an anecdote for future amusement, but no change in the underlying dynamics. For this we need much deeper confrontations with ourselves and our inadequacies, ones often drenched in tears and humility” (2014, location 5340).
There is no simple pathway to self-enlightenment to expose social desirability bias (or any other bias). Life is complex. Only an infinitesimal fraction of the trillions of neuron communications ever rises to conscious awareness. But in the complexity “drenched in tears and humility” we can see more. Instead of protecting against dissonance with justifications, we must wipe the dust from our eyes, courageously accept our inadequacies, prejudices, and misjudgments. Overtime, almost magically, we discover more effective ways to reduce dissonance, by admitting our foolishness and corruption—our humanness—we can address conflicting behaviors. Instead of appealing to others for acceptance through deception, we invite appreciation for our genuine likableness, presenting ourselves honestly as a flawed person that is trying to do the right thing.
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Ariely, D. (2013). The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves. Harper Perennial; Illustrated edition
Banaji, M. R., Greenwald, A. G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Bantam; Reprint edition.
Chung, J., & Monroe, G. (2004). Exploring Social Desirability Bias. Journal of Business Ethics, 44(4), 291-302.
Fuller, P. (2021) Why Your Brian Turns to Biases Under Time Constraint. Fast Company.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press; Reprint edition.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J., & Murray, J. (2005). Social desirability bias in self-monitoring data. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 2(4), 239-247.
Klar, S., Weber, C., & Krupnikov, Y. (2016). Social Desirability Bias in the 2016 Presidential Election. The Forum, 14(4),
Mlodinow, L. (2013). Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Vintage; Illustrated edition.
Tavris, C., Aronson, E. (2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner; Reprint edition
Trivers, R. (2014). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; Reprint edition