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The Social Desirability Effect

When people tell you what they think will make them look good, especially according to prevailing standards of behavior and thought, that’s the social desirability effect. Hada- way et al. (1998) went to a large Protestant church and found 115 people in attendance at the Sunday school. On Monday morning, when Hadaway et al. polled the whole church membership, 181 people claimed to have been in Sunday school the previous day. Headcount experiments like this one typically produce estimates of church attendance that are 55%-59% of what people report (T. W. Smith 1998).

The social desirability effect is influenced by the way you ask the question. Major surveys, like the Gallup Poll, ask something like: ‘‘How often do you attend religious services?’’ Then they give the people choices like ‘‘once a week, once a month, seldom, never.’’ Presser and Stinson (1998) asked people on Monday to list everything they had done did from ‘‘midnight Saturday to midnight last night.’’ When they asked the question this way, 29% of respondents said that they had gone to church. Asking ‘‘How often do you go to church?’’ produced estimates of 37%-45%. This is a 28%-50% difference in reported behavior and is statistically very significant (Further Reading: social desirability effect).

 
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