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People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They say they like women when they really like men. People lie to friends. They lie to bosses. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to husbands. They lie to wives. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys. Many people underreport embarrassing behaviours and thoughts on surveys.
They want to look good, even though most surveys are anonymous. This is called social desirability bias. An important paper in provided powerful evidence of how surveys can fall victim to such bias. Researchers collected data, from official sources, on the residents of Denver: They then surveyed the residents to see if the percentages would match.
The results were, at the time, shocking. What the residents reported to the surveys was very different from the data the researchers had gathered. Even though nobody gave their names, people, in large numbers, exaggerated their voter registration status, voting behaviour, and charitable giving.
Has anything changed in 65 years? In the age of the internet, not owning a library card is no longer embarrassing. A recent survey asked University of Maryland graduates various questions about their college experience.
The answers were compared with official records. People consistently gave wrong information, in ways that made them look good. Lying to oneself may explain why so many people say they are above average. How big is this problem? The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be. For eliciting truthful answers, internet surveys are better than phone surveys, which are better than in-person surveys. People will admit more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them.