Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Social Psychology: The Issue of Social Desirability

06/01/2002

In addition to asking respondents to perform the difficult task of retrieving complex information from long-term memory, survey instruments often ask questions about socially and personally sensitive topics. Some topics are deemed, by social consensus, to be too sensitive to discuss in "polite" society. This was a much shorter list in the 1990s than in the 1950s, but most would agree that topics such as sexual practices, impotence, and bodily functions fall within this classification. Some (e.g., Tourangeau et al., 2000) hypothesize that questions concerning income also fall within this category. Other questions may concern topics that have strong positive or negative normative responses (e.g., voting, the use of pugnacious terms with respect to racial or ethnic groups) or for which there may be criminal retribution (e.g., use of illicit drugs, child abuse).

The sensitivity of the behavior or attitude of interest may affect both the encoding of the information as well as the retrieval and reporting of the material; little of the survey methodological research has addressed the point at which the distortion occurs with respect to the reporting of sensitive material. Even if the respondent is able to retrieve accurate information concerning the behavior of interest, he or she may choose to edit this information at the response formation stage as a means to reduce the costs, ranging from embarrassment to potential negative consequences beyond the interview situation, associated with revealing the information.

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