Social Desirability Bias Impacts Self-Reported Alcohol Use Among Persons With HIV in Uganda

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2019 Dec;43(12):2591-2598. doi: 10.1111/acer.14218. Epub 2019 Nov 11.


Background: Self-report is widely used to assess alcohol use in research and clinical practice, but may be subject to social desirability bias. We aimed to determine if social desirability impacts self-reported alcohol use.

Methods: Among 751 human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected patients from a clinic in southwestern Uganda, we measured social desirability using the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (SDS) Short Form C, self-reported alcohol use (prior 3 months) Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-Consumption (AUDIT-C), and phosphatidylethanol (PEth), a biomarker of prior 3 weeks' drinking. We conducted multiple regression analyses to assess the relationship between SDS score (low, medium, and high levels) and (i) any self-reported recent alcohol use, among those who were PEth-positive (≥8 ng/ml), and (ii) continuous AUDIT-C score, among those reporting any recent alcohol use. We controlled for PEth level, age, gender, education, economic assets, marital status, religion, spirituality/religiosity, social support, and study cohort.

Results: Of 751 participants, 59% were women; the median age was 31 years (interquartile range [IQR]: 26 to 39). Median SDS score was 9 (IQR: 4 to 10). Two-thirds (62%) self-reported any recent alcohol use; median AUDIT-C was 1 (IQR: 0 to 4). Among those who were PEth-positive (57%), 13% reported no recent alcohol use. Those with the highest SDS tertile had decreased odds of reporting any recent alcohol use compared to the lowest tertile, but the association did not reach statistical significance in multivariable analyses (adjusted odds ratio 0.55 [95% confidence interval (CI): 0.25, 1.23]). Among participants self-reporting recent alcohol use, SDS level was negatively associated with AUDIT-C scores (adjusted β: -0.70 [95% CI: -1.19, -0.21] for medium vs. low SDS and -1.42 [95% CI: -2.05, -0.78] for high vs. low SDS).

Conclusions: While use of objective measures (e.g., alcohol biomarkers) is desirable for measuring alcohol use, SDS scores may be used to adjust self-reported drinking levels by participants' level of social desirability in HIV research studies.

Keywords: Alcohol Biomarker; Phosphatidylethanol; Self-Report; Social Desirability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / blood
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Bias*
  • Comorbidity
  • Female
  • Glycerophospholipids / blood
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Self Report*
  • Social Desirability*
  • Uganda / epidemiology


  • Glycerophospholipids
  • phosphatidylethanol