Social desirability (A complete guide)

In this article we will approach the concept of social desirability, which has its roots in this evolutionary baggage and which is expressed in a vehement way in multiple areas of life, conditioning our decisions and relationships.

What does social desirability mean?

Social desirability can be understood as a response style, or as a behavioural trend, in situations where there is a component of judgment on the part of others.

It gathers a series of attributes, thoughts, acts and beliefs that are valued (by the group of belonging) as acceptable; the reason why a reward is derived for its adherence and a sanction (or rejection) for its non-compliance.

Since most human beings want to show a favourable image to others, which often takes the form of masks whose purpose is to hide everything that is perceived as unacceptable, there would be pressure to adjust individuality to adapt to expectation moulds. Thus, the face of true identity would only be shown to people whose bond guaranteed us acceptance and validation.

The most intense expression of social desirability would be in the assumption that we perceived a notable discrepancy between what we think we are and what others expect of us, especially when we assign a high positive value to acceptance and a high negative value to rejection.

The importance of this concept is such that it is estimated that it can influence the results of the psychological evaluation, especially in the field of human resources and the clinic. 

For this reason, various authors have included specific scales to detect it within tools that measure constructs such as personality structure or work performance, thereby specifying a margin of error attributable to the need for the approval of the examinee.

Why does social desirability exist?

The search for affiliation has been an object of interest both for basic psychology and for the evolutionary, clinical and social aspects.

 Even Abraham Maslow, one of the most prominent humanists, placed it at the very heart of his popular pyramid of needs (above physiological and security needs, and below personal recognition and self-actualization); underlining that, after covering the most basic aspects for survival, social relations would be the last link from which to conquer personal significance.

Currently, there are many studies that highlight the extraordinarily negative impact of the absence of love or affection on human brain development, especially at the time when deprivation of basic care of the newborn, whose central nervous system is revealed, is evident in an intense maturation process. Unwanted loneliness also has a deleterious effect on old age, increasing morbidity and reducing life expectancy.

And it is that the human being needs collaboration with other members of the same species to deal with the vicissitudes of the environment. Thousands of years ago, when societies lacked a structure as we know it today, communities were made up of small groups of individuals who acted in coordination to meet individual needs, isolation being an inexorable death sentence (predators, accidents, etc.).

Humans who lived together had a greater chance of surviving and giving continuity to their gene pool through reproduction, facilitating the transmission of traits that would stimulate the maintenance of social ties. All this sponsored by the cultural components and the attribution of roles, within a society that endowed the individual with a broader sense of belonging.

Thus, social desirability is the result of the confluence of cultural, social, psychological and biological dimensions; that stimulate the need to be accepted by the reference groups. This reality serves as a foundation to give meaning to other phenomena that are observed in social dynamics, from conformity to prosocial behaviour.

In the field of Psychology, social desirability has also been understood as a confounding variable in the performance of psychometric tests (questionnaires, for example), consisting of the shaping of the answers offered by the evaluator in order to adopt a position consistent with prevailing norms or values. This particular bias would, therefore, be one of the consequences of the desire for acceptance.

In what areas does social desirability manifest itself?

Social desirability has a profound impact on many areas of life. In this section, we will only describe some of them, although it can be extended to many others.

1. Romantic relationships

The first stages of a relationship are intended to show the other person all of their own characteristics that, based on the narrow margins of social expectations, we consider to be more interpersonally attractive. Thus, there is a tendency to highlight everything positive (such as achievements in life and the most desirable personality traits), ignoring what could generate resistance in courtship exchanges.

As the relationship progresses and the bond grows stronger, a commitment to continuity tends to take hold, diluting the fear of rejection. It is at this time that social desirability is weakened, showing the most questionable aspects of who you think you are. It may be the phase in which there is a greater emotional connection, based on more authentic communication.

2. Prosocial conduct

Prosocial behaviour is understood as any deliberate activity that pursues, as a direct consequence, the production of some good for vulnerable groups or individuals. As a result of these acts, consideration is received, which may be of an economic nature (salary compensation) or social (prestige, consideration or relief of difficult emotions such as guilt or boredom).

This concept differs from altruism in the detail that, in the latter case, no benefits of any kind are associated for the person who develops the helping behaviour (neither pecuniary nor of any other nature). The impact of social desirability is of such magnitude that many authors suggest that altruism as such would not be possible since all disinterested behaviour would hide the incentive to seek a personal image that is desirable and accepted by the environment.

3. Rejection of social groups

Almost all societies have ostracized other groups of people for considering them unworthy of value, promoting this discriminatory judgment on cultural and/or religious rigours. A descriptive example of the phenomenon would be the untouchables of India, a group subjected to the explicit rejection of their community based on the attribution of particular characteristics that oppose what is desirable.

4. Conformity

There is ample evidence that people may be tempted to answer a question considering in advance the degree of consensus that their own reference group has on the possible answers to it, especially when the environment is ambiguous and there is physical proximity. In this way, it would increase the probability of acting wrongly, solely due to the fact that it is the most common.

The phenomenon has been studied through research situations designed for this purpose, the following being a classic example:

A group of people is located at the same table, of which all of them (except one) collaborate with the experimenter. They are shown a straight line of medium length, and then they are made to choose between three possible options (lines of different lengths) which would be more similar to the one originally taught. 

The evaluated subject would respond at the end when the rest had consensually indicated one of the wrong options. In a large percentage, this would end up opting for the same line and making mistakes.

5. Psychometric biases

Social desirability influences the responses a person makes when questioned in the course of a formal psychological evaluation. There are multiple studies that explore this phenomenon and relate it to biases associated with the human factor, and for which specific strategies are created aimed at its adequate control.

Social desirability is not the same as lying

Although the phenomenon may seem like a perfect alibi for the production of dishonest acts or even lies, this is not the case at all.

Social desirability serves as an axis to better understand the persuasion mechanisms and relationship dynamics that take place in the social fact, by exerting its influence on very different areas of life. Therefore, it exemplifies the way in which group pressure can condition the way in which we express ourselves to others.

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FAQ about social desirability

What does socially desirable mean?

Socially desirable means acting the way you think others will appreciate. Since most human beings want to show a favourable image to others, which often takes the form of masks whose purpose is to hide everything that is perceived as unacceptable, there would be pressure to adjust individuality to adapt to expectation moulds.

What is social desirability in research?

In research, social desirability refers to the tendency of choosing the “right” answers, the ones that subjects think matter most, value more or makes them look better, smarter, etc.

How can we prevent social desirability?

To prevent social desirability researches use the following methods: the randomized response technique, the bogus pipeline, self-administration of the questionnaire, the selection of interviewers, and the use of proxy subjects

Why is social desirability bias a problem for surveys?

Social desirability is a problem for surveys because it keeps the subjects in being honest and direct. Thus, the results of their study can be unconcluded. 

Conclusions

In this article, we explained a concept of social psychology – social desirability. 

The human being is a gregarious animal by nature. Since the dawn of its evolution as a species, it has lived in groups of a more or less large size, although not as large as the current ones, collaborating in the tasks necessary to survive.

All this has led to the majority of people showing a special interest in relating to their peers, especially in critical life periods such as adolescence.

Social desirability can be understood as a response style, or as a behavioural trend, in situations where there is a component of judgment on the part of others. It gathers a series of attributes, thoughts, acts and beliefs that are valued (by the group of belonging) as acceptable; the reason why a reward is derived for its adherence and a sanction (or rejection) for its non-compliance. 

Social desirability serves as an axis to better understand the persuasion mechanisms and relationship dynamics that take place in the social fact, by exerting its influence on very different areas of life. Therefore, it exemplifies the way in which group pressure can condition the way in which we express ourselves to others.

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References

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Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1996). Effects of impression management and self-deception on the predictive validity of personality constructs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81 (3), 261-272. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.81.3.261 

Eysenck, S. B. G., & Eysenck, H. J. (1963). An experimental investigation of “desirability” response set in a personality questionnaire. Life Sciences, 2 (5), 343-355. doi: 10.1016/00243205(63)90168-1        [ Links ]

Ferrando, P. J., & Chico, E. (2001). Detecting Dissimulation in Personality Test Scores: A Comparison between Person-Fit Indices and Detection Scales. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 61 (6), 997-1012. doi: 10.1177/00131640121971617        [ Links ]

Fleming, P., & Zizzo, D. J. (2011). Social desirability, approval and public good contribution. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 258-262. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.028  

Paulhus, D. L., Harms, P. D., Bruce, M. N., & Lysy, D. C. (2003). The overclaiming technique: Measuring self-enhancement independent of ability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (4), 890-904. doi: 10.1037/00223514.84.4.890  

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