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How Social Desirability Bias May Skew Important Research on Sexual Behaviors

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Key Takeaways

  • Social desirability bias refers to the urge to respond in a societally acceptable way.
  • Individuals tend to over-report societally acceptable behaviors and under-report societally unacceptable behaviors in sexual behavior research.
  • Given how social desirability bias may skew responses, researchers should include a measure of social desirability and take that into consideration in data analysis.


There are pros and cons to relying on self-report in the process of gathering data. Now, a recently published study in Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that the need to respond in a culturally appropriate manner may skew sexual behavior research.

Social desirability bias refers to the need individuals feel to respond in a manner that is considered societally acceptable, which may apply to over-reporting of societally acceptable behaviors and under-reporting of societally unacceptable behaviors in sexual behavior research.

Since social desirability bias may impact sexual behavior research, a measure of social desirability needs to be included and taken into consideration by researchers to mitigate its potential occurrence.

How Social Desirability Bias Works

Social desirability bias refers to the need to respond in a way that is deemed societally acceptable, even if it's anonymous, and a review of sexual behavior research found that it may alter self-reported results that cannot be factually checked.

Social desirability bias can skew results, as King noted self-reported sexual behaviors among US youth found that 51% denied ever having had a sexually transmitte infection (STI) but hospital records indicated they had.The study cited actually stated that 51 participants, or 40%, denied having had an STI, as refuted by accompanying medical documentation.

Given the impact of social desirability bias on sexual behavior responses, King recommends that researchers include a measure of social desirability, which can be taken into consideration when analyzing the responses.

Social Desirability Can Become Problematic

Therapist, Meagan Turner, MA, APC, NCC, says, "While social desirability bias can complicate objective research, it also helps to establish cultural norms and values that “polite society” often dictates."

Turner explains, "Everyone wants to be perceived well. We all want to be liked, loved, known for our true selves and accepted anyway, and to be treated as equals in society."

Out of these desires to be liked despite behaviors, feelings, motivations, or other potentially “unacceptable” qualities, Turner notes that socially desirable behaviors are born. "When these behaviors do not align with society, we often feel guilt, embarrassment, or shame," she says.

Turner highlights, "When social desirability bias gets in the way of you being able to live congruent with your own values, it can become problematic. For instance, social desirability bias around gender norms can create conflict with how society tells us we should act."

If social desirability bias is a result of correcting for one’s own insecurities by avoiding such feelings as guilt, or shame, Turner notes that a good place to start reducing that bias in interpersonal interactions is with yourself.

Meagan Turner, MA, APC, NCC

Social desirability bias does not just show up in research about sexual behaviors but also in studies relating to food or caloric intake, height, weight, and other cultural norms that society values.

— Meagan Turner, MA, APC, NCC

Turner explains, "Examining your own values, how important various beliefs and ideals are to you, will help you see what you find essential in friendships, relationships, coworkers, and others in your life."

By making informed decisions based on your own values, Turner notes it can increase your own self-confidence in your choices and decrease the need to perform in a way that is acceptable to others.

When acting in a way that aligns with your own wants, needs, and moral compass, Turner highlights that processing experiences that bring up uncomfortable feelings may help you realize what influences your decision to act in a socially desirable way that feels incongruent to who you are. 

Turner explains, "Social desirability bias does not just show up in research about sexual behaviors but also in studies relating to food or caloric intake, height, weight, and other cultural norms that society values."

The research highlights the need to have some sort of accountability for responses to mitigate the bias, as Turner reiterates the possibility of corroborating answers via polygraph or against medical records.

Skewed Research Often Informs Policy

Therapist, Elizabeth Marston, LCSW, says, "This study suggests that, even when given promises of anonymity, people are not able to provide objectively accurate answers to questions regarding sexual behaviors."

Marston explains, "Generally, people will minimize when there is a sense of embarrassment, guilt, and/or shame. Likewise, if the question is associated with feelings of power, answers seem to be inflated."

Even when anonymous, Marston notes that what is socially desirable seems to be associated with a heteronormative understanding of sexual behavior and seems to value the sexual experiences of heterosexual men.

Marston highlights, "The fact that this bias exists even in studies where participants are completely anonymous shows that those biases of the general culture shape how we think about ourselves."

Elizabeth Marston, LCSW

If our research remains skewed by social desirability bias, then policies, funding, and education will mirror that distortion, which can lead to further bias.

— Elizabeth Marston, LCSW

In order to try to reduce social desirability bias from affecting our relationships with others, Marston notes that it is important to understand and examine inherent our own biases and privileges.

Marston explains, "Our personal views of sexual behavior begin to be formed early in life by our families and specific communities to which we belong, and are typically quite gendered."

While it can be easy to ignore research like this, Marston highlights how our language and reactions may send messages of disapproval or imply a "right" answer that extends beyond such studies.

Marston explains, "It is so important for all of us to remember that research is a factor in guiding public policy, funding, and education. If our research remains skewed by social desirability bias, then policies, funding, and education will mirror that distortion, which can lead to further bias."

In this way, Marston highlights how this can become a feedback loop that promotes the biases of a predominantly white male cis heterosexual majority to the detriment of knowing and serving the diversity that exists. 

Releasing Oneself and Others From Expectations

Psychoanalyst, Laurie Hollman, PhD, says, "Research suggests that social desirability influences answer to surveys, especially when they are based on topics such as sex, height, weight, and overall health habits and activity."

Hollman explains, "This research suggests that we perceive socially desirable behaviors as what may be “expected” to be average, rather than what is actually true for the individual."

Since both over-reporting of desirable behaviors and underreporting of undesirable behaviors can occur, Hollman says, "Continue to remind yourself that your needs are separate from the needs of others."

Laurie Hollman, PhD

Having more open and honest conversations around this will help to normalize behaviors and minimize the distinction between desirable or undesirable activities and behaviors.

— Laurie Hollman, PhD

Hollman highlights, "If the activity or behavior is desirable and fulfilling to you, it does not have to be desirable nor fulfilling for the next person. The same mindset applies to undesirable activities and behaviors."

We can reduce social desirability bias by letting go of expectations that we have for ourselves and for others, according to Hollman, who recommends the ability to dance to the beat of your own drum and live an authentic life. 

While some may have strong likes or dislikes for certain foods, Hollman notes that both parties get to coexist. "I wish that more people openly discussed “taboo topics” such as sexual activity so that the stigmas can be removed and social desirability bias can be significantly reduced," she says.

Hollman explains, "Having more open and honest conversations around this will help to normalize behaviors and minimize the distinction between desirable or undesirable activities and behaviors."

What This Means For You

As the research demonstrates, social desirability bias can skew sexual behavior research. Given that such studies often inform policy decisions, oppressive sexual views may have lasting implications.

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2 Sources
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  1. King B. The Influence of Social Desirability on Sexual Behavior Surveys: A Review. Arch Sex Behav. 2022;51(3):1495-1501. doi:10.1007/s10508-021-02197-0

  2. Clark L, Brasseux C, Richmond D, Getson P, D'angelo L. Are adolescents accurate in self-report of frequencies of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies?Journal of Adolescent Health. 1997;21(2):91-96. doi:10.1016/s1054-139x(97)00042-6