Why survey research can be flawed
February 2009 - Everyone does things to impress other people, including exaggerating achievements, downplaying faults - and fibbing on surveys. A study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research examines why people do not necessarily tell the strict truth about themselves in surveys and whether or not anything can be done about it.
The author, Ashok K. Lalwani of the University of Texas at San Antonio, commented:
"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."
Many questions produce less than candid answers, including those on topics such as:
- compulsive buying
- drug and alcohol addiction
- cigarette smoking
- prostitution, and
- intolerant attitudes
Lalwani identifies two different kinds of "socially desirable responding," depending on people's cultural orientations. People from cultures with a "collectivist orientation" such as China, Korea, India, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan) show a greater tendency to engage in impression management - "a deliberate, strategic presentation of a socially approved image of the self."
Lalwani further defines impression management as "a conscious, active and deliberate attempt to fake good behavior in front of a real or imagined audience." Intriguingly, he found that the need to give the "right" answer may be reduced if survey participants are kept "cognitively busy" by playing background music during surveys.
Survey respondents from cultures with an individualist cultural orientation - for example, USA, UK, Canada, Australia, France and Germany - have a greater tendecy to engage in self-enhancement, which Lalwani explans as "a spontaneous tendency to present an internalized, unrealistically positive view of the self." He considers such behavior to be so unconscious that there is little that can be done to prevent it.
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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