brain_icon_color_orange-1.pngThis is the second post in ZS’s Cognitive Drivers Impact Series.

shutterstock_144708481.jpg“How many glasses of alcohol do you drink a week?”

“How many times per week do you exercise?”

“How often do you miss or skip taking your medication?”

We’ve all been asked similar questions during a health exam. Given that they’re about our own behavior, reason would dictate that they’d be easy to complete and it would be in our best interest to answer truthfully. After all, withholding information prevents our doctors from having a complete picture of our lifestyle and behaviors, and hinders their ability to make the best decisions about our care.

Yet self-reported answers like these are notoriously inaccurate. One WebMD study found that nearly 50% of patients admitted to lying or stretching the truth because of embarrassment or fear of being judged. Often, people aren’t even aware that they’re doing this because it happens subconsciously. This phenomenon is known as the social desirability bias, which is the tendency to inaccurately self-report information to present ourselves in the best possible light.

The sociologist Erving Goffman theorized that we are all constantly trying to manipulate the impression that we convey to others by revising our environment, appearance, opinions or behaviors to mimic those that are socially acceptable. We desperately want to avoid being judged negatively, so we manage the impression that we give others, even when we know that those impressions are deliberately misleading.


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In the context of the work that we do with clients at ZS, social desirability bias has implications both for the way that we make decisions (such as why patients stretch the truth with their doctors) and the way that we design market research to account for these subconscious influences. Traditional market research is based on an assumption that respondents can answer questions about their beliefs, behaviors and attitudes with complete honesty and awareness, disregarding any fear of judgement. If people aren’t being fully truthful (regardless of their motivation), how can we value their responses?

So what is a market researcher to do? Here are four tips based on our client experience:

  1. Recognize that social desirability bias exists, and plan for it in the research design and execution. When doing research on sensitive topics or anything where there is a clear, socially accepted “right” answer, plan for the potential for this bias to be high and be prepared to push beyond surface-level responses.
  2. Avoid the fishbowl of central-location interviews and two-way mirrors by stepping into the respondent’s world. One-on-one in-office or in-home interviews with respondents in their own environment increases their comfort level and willingness to let their guards down. (This can lead to more truthful responses and less of a tendency to provide socially desirable responses.)
  3. Keep respondents anonymous, even from the interviewer. Integrating digital channels into the research experience is one way to gain anonymity and enhance the intimacy of the research experience, which often leads to more truthful and, therefore, more insightful data.
  4. Frame questions using the third person. Don’t ask, “What would you do?” but ask, “What would someone else do?” Phrasing a question in this context frees the respondent from social disapproval by masking her response in someone else’s perspective.

To be truly effective in uncovering the drivers and barriers of customer choices and behavior in primary market research, researchers should understand and adjust for social desirability bias when designing, executing and analyzing research. Although adopting these guidelines may not eliminate the presence of social desirability bias entirely, taking the above steps will help to reduce its influence and minimize the extent that this subconscious driver sways answers away from respondents’ authentic thoughts and feelings. As market researchers—and observers of human behavior—steps like these are necessary to cut through the surface-level responses and uncover authentic, meaningful insights.

Topics: decision making, Cognitive Drivers Impact Series, Jennifer Curtis, customer behavior, social desirability bias