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Social Desirability


Explanations > Motivation > Social Desirability

Social construction | Positive bias | Association | Needs | Dysfunction | Assessment | So what?


Social desirability is a basic motivation whereby we are driven by what others think about us. This is not a small effect and much of how people behave has this need for approval and liking as a fundamental driver.

It is through such forces that society is founded.

Social construction

We all have a significant need for a sense of identity and many people create this through interactions and relationships with other people.

It can be said that we socially construct our selves, creating our image of ourselves through the eyes of other people, as in the 'Looking-glass self'. Even those who seem to have less concern for others are often notably affected by this.

Positive bias

Perhaps naturally, we like to have a positive self-image, considering ourselves clever, popular and so on. We hence tend to construct our selves in as positive a way as we can. On any desirable social scale, most people consider themselves above average (which of course is statistically impossible).

If others indicate that they do not like us or disapprove of us in some way, then we are forced to consider that we are bad or wrong in some way. This creates a powerful and uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that drives us harder in finding ways to appear (at least to ourselves) more socially desirable.


We also create ourselves through our associations, including our families, friends, job, religion, nationality and so on. In joining groups and internalizing their culture, including beliefs and values, we accept their rules and connect our identities to theirs.

Once these associations are created, we become fearful of losing them, for to be cast out of a group is to lose a part of who you are (or at least who you think you are).


Significant identity-related needs include the need to sustain the socially constructed self and to protect our associations, as indicated above. We hence have basic needs for:

  • Belonging: Identity created by association with a group.
  • Esteem: Being respected by others.
  • Fairness: Having the same as others.
  • Approval: Being approved of by superiors.
  • Liking: Being thought of as a friend.

We also need to avoid the opposite, and disapproval by others, particularly those with whom we identify and respect, can be quite terrifying. In consequence, we are often very careful to follow values and social norms.


Sometimes people do not seek social approval or liking, and in fact seem to revel in being disliked (or at least do not care what others think). Such people are significantly in the minority.

People with personality disorders such as the Antisocial Personality or the Psychopathic Personality are characterized by a lack of empathy and care little for social desirability (only in the way that it can be manipulated to meet their goals). Narcissists may appear to be opposite, caring greatly about social desirability, yet they will also manipulate and be unpleasant to others in their empty search for praise.

Many people also fall into the comforting pattern of repeating unhelpful games that may lead to them being persecuted or vilified. Even if they know this, they often seem unable to break out of the habit and may seek therapeutic support in their attempts to become more socially desirable.


In many forms of personality or preference assessment, the person is asked to fill in a questionnaire about themselves, from which they are placed on categorization scales.

The social desirability problem is that people may lie a little in order to make themselves look good, or because they want to help the person administering the test. To detect this, social desirability questions may be interspersed amongst the genuine questions, giving the test administrator an extra scale that indicates whether the person is faking or not.

A problem with asking people whether they are concerned about looking good is that those who are concerned are likely to answer such questions in a biased way. As a result, social desirability questions are often indirect, asking seemingly-innocuous questions that the respondent (hopefully) does not realize has the aim of determining their degree of social desirability.

A simple social desirability question may ask for agreement on statements such as 'It is very important to get on with other people' or 'White lies are sometimes necessary'. People who are concerned with their image or social norms may well agree that being on good terms with others is more important than telling the truth.

Social desirability may be assessed by asking questions to which responses distorted by social desirability can be detected, for example the statement 'I always put others ahead of myself' should be responded to as false as hardly anyone is so generous, although many will agree with the statement when they think this is what is being sought (the key word is the absolute term 'always').

A further way of testing for social desirability is by allowing faking, for example by asking a knowledge question to which they cannot know the question. If they pretend they know about the subject or otherwise bluff their way through, then this shows their tendency to act deceptively rather than admit the embarrassing truth of their ignorance.

Social desirability may also be indicated by people simply not answering questions that make them feel awkward or otherwise giving 'average' or non-committal answers.

So what?

When working with others, seek to understand how important it is for them to be liked, approved of, or looked up to, then find ways of detecting this without alerting their suspicions.

See also

Theories about how we think about ourselves, Identity, Maslow's hierarchy, Please Others, Faking and deviance


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