Social Desirability Bias: Impact during the Holiday Season

A 2020 study seeks to understand how social desirability biases impact the population during holiday times.



At the end of the year, there is a twofold social pressure to spend money. On the one hand, spending is a sign of love, but on the other hand, overspending is considered unreasonable. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the average American will have spent $1,050, between gifts, treats and travel, according to a 2020 publication by Courtney & Widmar. At that same time, food consumption is somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 4,500 calories per day, compared to 2,500 during the rest of the year.


The origin of the unhappiness caused by these excesses is a well-known and well documented sociological factor, aka the social desirability bias. Identified the first time in 1954 by Maccoby & Maccoby in "The interview: a tool of social science", this term designates the fact of being pushed to present oneself in a more favorable light, to oneself or to one's interlocutors. This is what can lead us to say that this year will be more reasonable than others in terms of spending when it will not.


In order to assess the prevalence of social desirability bias at holiday times, the publication "Consistently biased: documented consistency in self-reported holiday healthfulness behaviors and associated social desirability bias” analyzes the results of a survey conducted on two different groups, each with the same questions. One of the groups reads the following annotation at the beginning of their questionnaire: "Humans may be inclined to answer questions in a way that deviates from their actual behavior in order to improve the impression they give to others. [...] Keep this tendency in mind and try to reflect on your real behavior when answering questions. Thus, a difference in responses between the two groups will be an indicator of the presence of social desirability bias. Through a series of questions about eating and sports at holiday times, the goal is to observe which ones are subject to social desirability bias.


The results show no difference in responses regarding attention. Both groups plan to monitor their weight and maintenance of their training program. However, biases are noted on actual actions, such as weight gain, and consumption of desserts or alcohol. There is also a bias on the resolution to lose weight.


Another 2015 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity finds other social desirability biases, such as underreporting of video game time among youth, or overestimating activity, underestimating sweetened beverage preferences, and lower ratings of weight concerns among 8 to 10year-old girls.


Well known in research for having the power to skew results, ways have been developed to circumvent this bias in surveys by adjusting data after the fact, or by removing this bias during testing by warning participants of its existence, as was done at Courtney & Widmar.

Bibliography :


Bir, Courtney, and Nicole Olynk Widmar. "Consistently biased: documented consistency in self-reported holiday healthfulness behaviors and associated social desirability bias." Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 7.1 (2020): 1-11.

Simons, Monique, et al. "Associations between active video gaming and other energy-balance related behaviours in adolescents: a 24-hour recall diary study." International journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity 12.1 (2015): 1-6.