This is one of a series of excerpts from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library.


Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1983, Vol. 51, No. 6, 882-888

Social Desirability Scales: More Substance Than Style

Robert R. McCrae and Paul T Costa, Jr.

Gerontology Research Center, National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health

Many psychologists still regard correlations with social desirability (SD) scales as evidence of the invalidity of measures, despite 20 years of research showing that this interpretation is usually unjustified. Although items or scales may be characterized as high or low in SD, there is little evidence that individuals differentially respond to this property when completing self-report questionnaires under normal instructional conditions. In an attempt to separate substance from style in SD scales, self-reports from 215 adult men and women were compared to the external criterion of spouse ratings on a range of personality traits in the domains of neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience. When self-reports were "corrected" using scores from the Eysenck Personality Inventory Lie scale and the Marlowe-Crowne SD scale, validity coefficients decreased, rather than increased, in most cases. Both scales were shown to be substantively related to neuroticism and, to a lesser degree, to extraversion and closedness. These results suggest that correlations with SD scales should be given substantive rather than artifactual interpretations and that the widespread practice of correcting scores for lying, defensiveness, or SD should be questioned.

A recent exchange in this journal (Linehan & Nielsen, 1983; Nevid, 1983) demonstrated continuing ambiguity about the status of social desirability as an issue in personality assessment and diagnosis. Many researchers believe that the question has long since been resolved, and Nevid feels obliged to apologize for "kicking a methodological dead horse" (p. 139). Linehan and Nielson, however, point out that social desirabilitv continues to be a concern for many test developers and consumers. Measures of lying, defensiveness, or social desirability are still widely used to assess the validity of substantive scales (e.g., Rock, 1981; Sarason, Levine, Basham, & Sarason, 1983) and to correct scores for individuals, despite evidence in the literature that neither of these functions is justified. This article reviews previous research on social desirability and presents new evidence reaffirming the conclusions that social desirability scales are better interpreted as measures of substantive traits than as indicators of response bias and that they are of little use as suppressor variables in correcting scores from other scales.

Social Desirability in Tests and in Individuals

The term social desirability (SD) is most closely identified with the work of Edwards (1957), who examined its effects in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), but it has come to be used as a general phrase to represent tendencies to distort self-reports in a favorable direction. Wiggins (1968) points out that there are two quite different applications of the term that are often confounded. SD may be seen as a property of items or scales, or it may be seen as an individual difference variable. This distinction is crucial, since the evidence strongly supports the value of the first conceptualization, but offers much less support for the second.

Items and scales differ systematically in the desirability of their responses, and response rates are strongly related to estimates of desirability (Edwards, 1957). In part, this reflects the fact that society successfully instills desirable behavior in most of us (Heilbrun, 1964); in part, it results from a universal tendency to err on the more flattering side in self-descriptions. Various techniques have been advocated to correct this problem ....

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