The Use of Self-Report Data in Psychology

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In psychology, a self-report is any test, measure, or survey that relies on an individual's own report of their symptoms, behaviors, beliefs, or attitudes. Self-report data is gathered typically from paper-and-pencil or electronic format, or sometimes through an interview.

Self-reports are commonly used in psychological studies because they can yield much valuable and diagnostic information to a researcher or a clinician. One of the most commonly used self-report tools is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) for personality testing.

Advantages of Self-Report Data

One of the primary advantages of self-report data is that it can be easy to obtain. It is also an important way that clinicians diagnose their patients—by asking questions. Those making the self-report are usually familiar with filling out questionnaires.

For research, it is inexpensive and can reach many more test subjects than could be analyzed by observation or other methods. It can be performed relatively quickly, so a researcher can obtain results in days or weeks rather than observing a population over the course of a longer time frame. Self-reports can be made in private and can be anonymized to protect sensitive information and perhaps promote truthful responses.

Disadvantages of Self-Report Data

Collecting information through a self-report has limitations. People are often biased when they report on their own experiences. For example, many individuals are either consciously or unconsciously influenced by "social desirability." That is, they are more likely to report experiences that are considered to be socially acceptable or preferred.

Self-reports are subject to these biases and limitations:

  • Honesty: Subjects may make the more socially acceptable answer rather than being truthful.
  • Introspective ability: The subjects may not be able to assess themselves accurately.
  • Interpretation of questions: The wording of the questions may be confusing or have different meanings to different subjects.
  • Rating scales: Rating something yes or no can be too restrictive, but numerical scales also can be inexact and subject to individual inclination to give an extreme or middle response to all questions.
  • Response bias: Questions are subject to all of the biases of what the previous responses were, whether they relate to recent or significant experience and other factors.
  • Sampling bias: The people who complete the questionnaire are the sort of people who will complete a questionnaire. Are they representative of the population you wish to study?

Self-Report Info With Other Data

Most experts in psychological research and diagnosis suggest that self-report data should not be used alone, as it tends to be biased. Research is best done when combining self-report data with other information, such as an individual’s behavior or physiological data. This “multi-modal” or “multi-method” assessment provides a more global, and therefore more likely accurate, picture of the subject.

The questionnaires used in research should be checked to see if they produce consistent results over time. They also should be validated by another data method demonstrating that responses measure what they claim they measure. Questionnaires and responses should be easy to discriminate between controls and the test group.

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