Public Release:  Don't flatter yourself: Why survey research can be flawed

University of Chicago Press Journals

We all do things to impress others--exaggerate our accomplishments, downplay our faults, even fib on surveys. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research sheds light on why we don't tell the strict truth about ourselves in surveys and what, if anything, can be done about it.

"The tendency of people to portray themselves in a more favorable light than their thoughts or actions, called socially desirable responding, is a problem that affects the validity of statistics and surveys worldwide," writes author Ashok K. Lalwani (University of Texas at San Antonio).

When asked about their own behavior in relation to materialism, compulsive buying, drug and alcohol addiction, cigarette smoking, shoplifting, gambling, prostitution, and intolerant attitudes, people tend to answer in a less than candid manner.

The research teased out two separate forms of "socially desirable responding," and found that people's cultural orientations lead them to different forms. For example, people from cultures that have a "collectivist orientation" (China, Korea, India, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan) are more likely to engage in impression management, which is "a deliberate, strategic presentation of a socially approved image of the self."

Impression management is "a conscious, active and deliberate attempt to fake good behavior in front of a real or imagined audience," writes Lalwani. That need to give the "right" answer can be reduced by keeping survey participants "cognitively busy" by playing background music during surveys, he found.

In contrast, consumers with an individualist cultural orientation (the United States, Canada, France, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany) are more likely to engage in self-enhancement, which is "a spontaneous tendency to present an internalized, unrealistically positive view of the self." This behavior is so unconscious that there is little that can be done to curtail it.

The study can help researchers evaluate the validity of survey responses in light of people's tendency toward socially desirable responding. It also helps consumers predict their own behavior and potentially modify it.

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Ashok K. Lalwani. "The Distinct Influence of Cognitive Busyness and Need for Closure on Cultural Differences in Socially Desirable Responding." Journal of Consumer Research: August 2009.

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