The effect of social desirability and social approval on self-reports of physical activity

Am J Epidemiol. 2005 Feb 15;161(4):389-98. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwi054.


The purpose of this investigation was to examine social desirability and social approval as sources of error in three self-reported physical activity assessments using objective measures of physical activity as reference measures. In 1997, women (n = 81) living in Worcester, Massachusetts, completed doubly labeled water measurements and wore an activity monitor for 14 days. They also completed seven interviewer-administered 24-hour physical activity recalls (PARs) and two different self-administered 7-day PARs. Measures of the personality traits "social desirability" and "social approval" were regressed on 1) the difference between physical activity energy expenditure estimated from doubly labeled water and each physical activity assessment instrument and 2) the difference between monitor-derived physical activity duration and each instrument. Social desirability was associated with overreporting of activity, resulting in overestimation of physical activity energy expenditure by 0.65 kcal/kg/day on the second 7-day PAR (95% confidence interval: 0.06, 1.25) and overestimation of activity durations by 4.15-11.30 minutes/day (both 7-day PARs). Social approval was weakly associated with underestimation of physical activity on the 24-hour PAR (-0.15 kcal/kg/day, 95% confidence interval: -0.30, 0.005). Body size was not associated with reporting bias in this study. The authors conclude that social desirability and social approval may influence self-reported physical activity on some survey instruments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bias
  • Body Mass Index
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Personality Assessment
  • Self Disclosure*
  • Social Conformity*
  • Social Desirability*