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Socially desirable responding

Author: Dr Simon Moss


A variety of measures have been developed to assess whether or not individuals who are completing questionnaires are distorting their answers to portray themselves positively-called socially desirable responding (Paulhus, 2002). According to Paulhus (1991), these measures afford several benefits.

First, researchers sometimes examine whether various instruments, such as personality inventories, are related to measures of socially desirable responding. These studies are undertaken to ensure the instrument is not unduly confounded by a bias in individuals to depict themselves positively. In addition, researchers often examine whether two variables, such as personality and performance, are related to each other after measures of socially desirable responding are controlled

Second, practitioners sometimes administer measures of socially desirable responding to identify job candidates or other individuals who tend to distort their answers. Often, these individuals are excluded from the process, because their responses cannot be trusted.

Thirdly, researchers can use these measures to identify contextual factors that might influence distortions in responses. Researchers, for example, can examine whether instructions to answer honestly can diminish or exacerbate distortion.

History of the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding Version 6 (BIDR-6).

Unconscious versus conscious distortion

In 1964, Wiggins differentiated two facets of socially desirable responding. In particular, Wiggins subjected responses to the Edwards social desirability scale and the Wiggins social desirability scale to a factor analysis. Two factors emerged. The first factor was labelled Alpha and represented items from the Edwards scale. The second factor was labelled Gamma and represented items from the Wiggins scale. Since this analysis, scholars have attempted to interpret or characterize the Alpha and Gamma scale.

For example, Damarin and Messin suggested the Alpha factor might reflect an unconscious, rather than deliberate, attempt to evaluated biases--which they called an autistic bias in self regard. In contrast, they suggested the Gamme factor might repreent a conscious or intentional attempt to bias their responses--which they called a propagandistic bias.

Self versus other distortion

Sackeim and Gur (1978) developed an instrument that assumes a related taxonomy. In particular, the instrument they developed comprised two facets: Self Deception and Other Deception. Specifically, according to Sackeim and Gur (1978), some individuals seem to be unrealistically positive when they describe themselves, although seem to be oblivious to this distortion. The Self Deception Questionnaire was constructed to represent this tendency. In contrast, some individuals deliberately strive to depict themselves positively, represented by the Other Deception Questionnaire.

Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR-6)

Paulhus (1984) amended the taxonomy that was proposed by Damarin and Messick (1965) and then exemplified by Sackeim and Gur (1978). In particular, Paulhus (1984) distinguished two forms of socially desirable responding: self deception and impression management. Despite some variations in the boundaries of these facets, his definition of self deception overlapped with the definition that was utilized by Sackeim and Gur (1978). Furthermore, his definition of impression management overlapped with the definition of other deception that was used by Sackeim and Gur (1978).

In 1989, Paulhus published the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding to represent these two facets (also see Paulhus, 1991). The first subscale, self deception, was designed to assess the extent to which individuals exaggerate positive attributes and conceal negative attributes to themselves. The 20 items describe subjective qualities, such as "I always know why I like things", "I am a completely rational person", "My first impressions of people usually turn out to be right", and "I never regret my decisions".

The second subscale, impression management, was designed to assess the degree to which individuals deliberately inflate the inclination to engage in desirable rather than undesirable behaviors& the items describe concrete, observable acts. Examples include "I never swear", "I never conceal my mistakes", "I sometimes lie if necessary" (reverse scored), "I always declare everything at customs", "I never drop litter in the street", and "I never read sexy books or magazines".

Cronbach's alpha for the two subcales ranges from .68 to .80 for self deception and .75 to .83 to impression management. Impression management tends to converge with lie scales (see Paulhus, 1984).

Facets of self deception: Enhancement and denial.

Subsequently, Paulhus and Reid (1991) indicated that self deception, which is regarded as unconscious and not deliberate, comprises twosubfactors: self enhancement and self denial. That is, self enhancement refers to the extent to which individuals inadvertently exaggerate their desirable qualities. Self denial refers to the degree to which individuals inadvertently conceal or minimize undesirable qualities.

Accordingly, Paulhus and Reid (1991) refined the previous version of the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding. This revised instrument included three subscales: impression management, self deceptive enhancement, and self deceptive denial.

Refinement of the factor structure: Egoistic and moralistic biases.

Paulhus and John (1998) uncovered some unexpected patterns of observations, which did not align with the previous distinction between impression management and self deception. Specifically, in this study, participants completed the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding, the Crowne-Marlowe scales, and the Narcissitic Personality Inventory. In addition, peers or relatives also rated these participants, using the same scales. The difference between self and peer ratings was calculated and subjected to a factor analysis, a process called a self criterion residual method.

Two unexpected factors emerged. The first factor, subsequently referred to as an egoistic bias, entailed self enhancement and narcissism. The second factor, subsequently referred to as an moralistic bias, entailed self denial and impression management. This finding than self denial and impression management loaded on the same factor was not anticipated: self denial is putatively unconscious and impression management is putatively deliberate.

According to Paulhus and John (1998), the egoistic bias represents an inclination of some individuals to inflate their status, popularity, competence, and agency: they essentially like to portray themselves as a "superhero". This bias entails an unconscious or inadvertent inflation of their qualities, as represented by the self enhancement scale, as well as a conscious or deliberate exaggeration of status, as represented by narcissism.

The moralistic bias represents a tendency in some individuals to highlight the extent to which they align with social norms of suitable behavior& they depict themselves as "saint like". This bias entails an unconscious denial of inappropriate behaviors or impulses as well as a conscious attempt to portray themselves as compliant with social norms, often manifested as excuses for unsuitable acts (see also Paulhus, 2002)

Egoistic and moralistic biases as a function of personality.

Paulhus and John (1998) also applied the self criterion residual method to the five factor model-extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness--together with intelligence. That is, participants rated themselve on these traits. Peers or relatives also rated these participants on the traits. Differences between self and peer ratings were subjected to a factor analysis.

Two factors emerged, which seemed to align with the distinction between egoistic and moralistic bias. The first factor, which entailed extraversion, openness, and intelligence, most likely represented a tendency to exaggerate status, popularity, or competence, thus aligning with an egoistic bias. The second factor, which entailed agreeableness and conscientiousness, most likely represented a tendency to inflate alignment with social norms, thus manifesting a moralistic bias.

Measurement of egoistic and moralistic biases: the Paulhus Deception Scales

The Paulhus Deception Scale, which comprises 40 items, represents an attempt to modify the BIDR-6, primarily to reflect the distinction between egoistic and moralistic biases (see Pauls & Crost, 2004;; Paulhus, 2002;; Salekin, 2000).

The egoistic bias subscale was primarily derived from the self enhancement scale. The items reflect undue confidence in their, decisions, judgements, social skills, and sense of control (Pauls & Crost, 2004). These individuals inflate their dominance, status, and resilience (Detrick & Chinball, 2008). The moralistic bias subscale, primarily derived from the impression management scale, reflect excessive compliance with social norms and regulations, manifested as undue agreeableness and conscientiousness (Pauls & Crost, 2004). As Salekin (2000) demonstrated, Cronbach's alpha for these two subscales has been shown to range from .70 to .86 across various samples.

Evidence of egoistic and moralistic biases

In addition to factor analytic studies, Paulhus (2002) undertook additional research to characterize the egoistic and moralistic biases. Specifically, Paulhus (2002) showed that individuals who were instructed to highlight their competence to the experimenter demonstrated egoistic biases: self enhancement, for example, escalated. In contrast, individuals who were instructed to depict themselves as a "good person" demonstrated moralistic biases: impression management tended to rise, as participants portrayed themselves as more communal.

Four dimensions

According to Holden and Evoy (2005), four facets of faking can be differentiated. Specifically, in this study, participants completed the NEO personality inventory. They were asked to pretend they were candidates, applying for specific roles. They were told to respond either honestly, negatively, or positively, depending on the condition to which they were assigned.

Discriminant function analysis was undertaken to differentiate these three groups. This analysis uncovered four dimensions, showing that participants may inflate the degree to which they are:

Most of the traditional measures of social desirability biases correlated with one or more of these dimensions. For example, self-deceptive enhancement correlated positively with effective but negatively with open in their disclosures. Impression management correlated positively with effective and boldly innovative but negatively with the other dimensions.

Faking in job interviews

Levashina and Campion (2007) developed a taxonomy that can be used to classify and to record behaviors in job interviews that epitomize faking and impression management. The scale comprised 11 subfactors:

This scale was used to uncover some interesting insights. For example, in an anonymous study, participants who conceded they apply these behaviors were more likely to be accepted into the next stage of a recruitment process (Levashina & Campion, 2007). In addition, people who completed a situational judgment interview, instead of a behavioral interview, were more inclined to exhibit these behaviors (Levashina & Campion, 2007).

Impact of socially desirable responding

Faking good and bad

Many studies have been undertaken to assess whether socially desirable responding does indeed compromise the utility and validity of personality tests in practical settings, such as the selection of job candidates or the development of employees. To explore this issue, Viswesvaran and Ones (1999) conducted a meta-analysis to examine whether responses to personality tests depend on whether participants are instructed to "fake-good"--that is, attempt to portray themselves as desirable--or to "fake bad"--that is, attempt to portray themselves as undesirable.

The findings that indicate that attempting to portray themselves as desirable or undesirable did indeed affect the responses of participants on measures that gauge the five factor model of personality (see Five factor model of personality). That is, compared to individuals who attempted to portray themselves unfavorably, individuals who attempted to portray themselves favorably exhibited elevated levels of extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, consientiousness, and openness to experience. Effect sizes ranged from d = .48 for agreeableness to d = .65 for openness. Hence, responses tended to change by approximately 0.5 standard deviations.

Response distortion over time

Previous research indicates that individuals can distort their responses, depicting themselves as socially desirable, if instructed to "fake-good". Nevertheless, these findings do not imply that, in real settings, participants will distort their responses. Indeed, in these settings, individuals are encouraged to respond accurately, which could diminish these biases (see Hogan, Barrett, & Hogan, 2007).

Accordingly, Hogan, Barrett, and Hogan (2007) conducted a study that was intended to examine the level of response distortion in real settings. Specifically, job applicants to a customer service role where tested twice: once during the initial application and once during a second application, six months later. All of these applicants had been rejected after the first application and, according to the authors, should be more motivated to distort their responses on the second occasion. However, two significant differences between the two periods were observed.

Nevertheless, the applicants in these studies might be unwilling or unable to distort their responses suitably, which could explain their initial rejection. In addition, a need to be consistent across time could also have mitigated any differences.

Response distortion towards social norms

Birkeland, Manson, Kisamore, Brannick, and Smith (2006), however, uncovered evidence that indicates that job applicants do distort their responses, but the degree and direction of these biases vary across roles. Specifically, this study compared individuals who were asked to "fake-good" or "fake-bad" with bona fide job applicants. Sales applicants were more likely than other applicants to portray themselves as high on extraversion but low on agreeableness. These findings indicate that individuals do not always portray themselves as more socially desirable. Instead, they distort their responses to match the norms of their desired role.

Criterion validity

Many studies have examined whether or not socially desirable responding diminishes the association between personality and performance (e.g., Berry, Page & Sackett, 2007). Many reviews into this issue have concluded that such associations, and hence the predictive validity of these instruments, are not undermined by socially desirable responding (Li & Bagger, (2006 & Ones & Viswesvaran, 1998). To illustrate, Hough, Eaton, Dunnette, Kamp & McCloy (1990) conducted a meta-anlysis, showing the relationship between personality and performance is not moderated by indices of social desirability. Nevertheless, whether these indices of social desirablity represent the gamut of distortions and biases of individuals is uncertain and, indeed, unlikely (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Lee, & Podsakoff, 2003).

Antecedents of socially desirable responding

Several studies have examined the determinants of self enhancement and impression management. Lalwani, Shrum, and Chiu (2009), for example, showed that an orientation towards individualism rather than collectivism was positively related to self enhancement, but not impression management, biases. In particular, individualism was related to a promotion focus, which in turn provoked self enhancement biases--especially if participants were low in private self consciousness. In contrast, an orientation towards collectivism was positively associated with impression management--and this association was mediated by a prevention focus, particularly when public self consciousness was high.


If responses are anonymous, participants are assume to be more inclined to concede beliefs or attitudes that could be perceived as undesirable. That is, anonymity can diminish social desirability biases.

Yet, as Lelkes, Krosnick, Marx, Judd, and Park (2012) showed, anonymity can also compromise the accuracy of some responses. Specifically, when anonymous, people do not feel as accountable. They are, therefore, more inclined to conserve their effort. They do not reflect upon questions as carefully. Consequently, they often choose the first answer that is evoked in their mind& the accuracy of their answers may dissipate.

Lelkes, Krosnick, Marx, Judd, and Park (2012) conducted a series of studies that explore this matter. In the first study, participants were asked to explore various websites to collect information about a specific topic: the mountain pygmy possum. Five websites were listed, although participants were also encouraged to search other sites that could be relevant to this topic. Then, half the participants were told to specify their name, whereas the other participants completed this task anonymously--and were indeed told to refrain from including information that could uncover their identity. Yet, unbeknownst to participants, spyware was used to track the sites they visited.

Next, participants completed a measure that gauges whether they are willing to concede socially undesirable behaviors, such as "I have sometimes explored pornographic sites on the Internet." In addition, participants indicated which sites they had visited. Finally, all participants completed a battery of four tests, including questions that gauged the extent to which they enjoyed the topic as well as the emotions they are experiencing now.

Anonymity did increase the likelihood that participants would concede to behaviors that are socially undesirable. Yet, anonymity also provoked inaccurate responses: The number of sites that anonymous participants claimed they visited was especially likely to diverge from the number of sites they actually visited. Furthermore, when participants were anonymous, the variability of their responses diminished, especially during the third and fourth battery of questions. Presumably, because of fatigue and limited effort, they simply indicated the same response to almost all questions, called non-differentiation.

Controversies about social desirability bias and faking

Incumbents versus applicants

If personality inventories are really susceptible to social desirability biases and other forms of faking, applicants should score higher on these scales than incumbents. To illustrate, suppose that individuals need to specify the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statement "I try to follow the rules" on a five point scale--an item that obviously measures conscientiousness. Applicants are especially motivated to show they are conscientious and, therefore, may tend to agree with this item. Incumbents may not be as motivated to show they are conscientious and may not always agree with this item.

Past research has uncovered mixed results. That is, many desirable personality traits, such as agreeableness and conscientiousness, are rated more highly in applicants than in incumbents. Nevertheless, some studies have not uncovered differences between applicants and incumbents (for a review, see O'Brien & LaHuis, 2011).

As O'Brien and LaHuis (2011) argued however, the difference between applicants and incumbents may be subtler. That is, applicants may not always depict themselves more favorably. Instead, when they complete personality inventories, they might apply a different approach or model.

To illustrate, while they answer these questions, people tend to apply one of two models: a dominance response model or an ideal point response model. To illustrate the difference between these models, consider again the item "I try to follow the rules", a measure of conscientiousness. If individuals apply a dominance model, high responses, scuh as 5 on a a five point scale, also represent high levels of that trait. If individuals apply an ideal point model, however, high scores do not always represent high levels of that trait. Instead, high scores indicate the person feels that item describes them accurately. In this instance, even people who are very high on conscientiousness may disagree with this item. They may feel this item does not accurately represent this elevated level of conscientiousness.

According to O'Brien and LaHuis (2011), incumbents may be more likely than applicants to apply this ideal point response model. That is, they may disagree to a statement that represents a moderate level of some trait, such as conscientiousness, if they feel they exhibit elevated levels of this trait.

To assess this possibility, over 1500 incumbents and over 1500 applicants completed a series of personality scales. The responses were subjected to a model called the generalized grading unfolding model. This model assumes that each response can be represented by three parameters, reflecting the difference between the two groups, the level at which the item represents the trait, and the extent to which the participant exhibits this trait. The study uncovered some, but only limited, evidence that incumbents are more likely than applicants to apply the ideal point response model.

Nevertheless, if another questionnaire had been used, the evidence of this proposition may have been stronger. That is, this questionnaire, when constructed, was assumed to correspond to a dominant response model. Consequently, if participants applied an ideal-point response model, the item would not correlate highly with the criterion and would have been excluded from the scale. Therefore, the items that remained are not as susceptible to this ideal point response model. For example, these items may represent more extreme levels of the underlying trait.

Undesirable or adaptive

In general, impression management and social desirability biases are assumed to reflect undesirable tendencies. For example, some researchers assume that impression management implies defensive responses. That is, according to this perspective, the self-esteem of some people is fragile. Consequently, when asked questions about themselves, they feel vulnerable and respond defensively, inflating their qualities. Nevertheless, this vulnerability may compromise their performance in many public settings. In short, impression management or bias tends to coincide with impaired performance.

Alternatively, other researchers assume that impression management is adaptive. That is, some people are friendly and can readily inhibit their inclinations to accommodate the needs of other individuals. Because of this capacity, they select responses to questions that are likely to be perceived as desirable. Therefore, impression management and related biases may instead coincide with excellent performance, at least in some settings.

Uziel (2010) conducted a study to differentiate these possibilities. As this study showed, at least one measure of impression management, the lie scale of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, does correlate with desirable behavior in social settings.

In particular, in this study, participants completed the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire-Revised. Embedded in this questionnaire is a lie scale, in which participants concede whether or not they have engaged in undesirable acts that are almost universal, such as gossiping or arriving late. Next, they completed various tasks--either alone or with other people around. For example, they wrote a story that related to an ambiguous picture. In addition, in one study, they specified words that could finish incomplete sentences about themselves.

If participants scored high on the lie scale, they were more likely to perform better when other people were around. Their story was more creative and original& they persisted longer. Furthermore, when other people were around, they completed sentences about themselves more positively--contrary to the assumption that impression management corresponds to defensive responses.


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