Julia Kleinewiese
Social desirability bias and lack of trust in scientific surveys on deviant behavior

Lack of trust in surveys and issues with survey climate are an increasing problem in survey research. This threatens the quality of survey data (e.g., its validity). Moreover, it poses challenges in gathering data, particularly among “hard-to-reach” populations. Finally, these societal attitudes restrict the use of scientific results in practice – by policymakers and other relevant stakeholders.

While in line with these general trends, research on deviance and crime faces particularly acute challenges – with regard to trust and social desirability bias. Many people fear that they, their (work)group or organization may fall into disrepute if negative tendencies should be brought to light by research. Moreover, people may feel pressured to respond according to social norms and standards (social desirability), biasing the results. They feel insulted (“are you suggesting that we/I would do that?”) leading to several possible outcomes, such as refusal to participate in the survey, biased responses or general anger towards researchers. In the long run, this results in generally low-response rates and distrust toward research results. Additionally, many organizations refuse to participate in research on deviance all together. This collective unit-non-response is due to a “code of silence” within the organization (people maintaining silence about possible wrongdoings within the organization).

These issues are particularly acute with items directly inquiring about deviance or crime. Therefore, to increase trust in surveys and reduce social desirability bias in this field of research, it is expedient to apply survey methodologies that are less about the respondents’ own experiences; for instance, survey experiments describing fictitious situations. These allow for some distancing, for example, by describing the situation from a third-person perspective. Previous research suggests that survey experiments can help reduce social desirability bias (Auspurg & Hinz 2015, Mutz 2011). Survey experiments are also likely to increase trust (lower skepticism) of respondents towards the survey and scientists. While this approach has been applied in a number of studies, it is still met with skepticism by many researchers. Existing publications using factorial survey experiments in empirical research, however, show that this approach is an asset in research on deviance and crime (e.g., Dickel & Graeff 2018). This presentation elaborates on why and how this is the case and why establishing this approach as a scientific standard is important for the research field of deviance and crime – in order to increase participation and honest answering behavior as well as to improve data quality.

Auspurg, K., & Hinz, T. (2015). Factorial survey experiments. Los Angeles: Sage.
Dickel, P., & Graeff, P. (2018). Entrepreneurs’ propensity for corruption: A vignette-based factorial survey. Journal of Business Research, 89, 77-86.
Mutz, D. C. (2011). Population-based survey experiments. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.