Social desirability bias in dietary self-report may compromise the validity of dietary intake measures

Int J Epidemiol. 1995 Apr;24(2):389-98. doi: 10.1093/ije/24.2.389.


Background: Self-report of dietary intake could be biased by social desirability or social approval thus affecting risk estimates in epidemiological studies. These constructs produce response set biases, which are evident when testing in domains characterized by easily recognizable correct or desirable responses. Given the social and psychological value ascribed to diet, assessment methodologies used most commonly in epidemiological studies are particularly vulnerable to these biases.

Methods: Social desirability and social approval biases were tested by comparing nutrient scores derived from multiple 24-hour diet recalls (24HR) on seven randomly assigned days with those from two 7-day diet recalls (7DDR) (similar in some respects to commonly used food frequency questionnaires), one administered at the beginning of the test period (pre) and one at the end (post). Statistical analysis included correlation and multiple linear regression.

Results: Cross-sectionally, no relationships between social approval score and the nutritional variables existed. Social desirability score was negatively correlated with most nutritional variables. In linear regression analysis, social desirability score produced a large downward bias in nutrient estimation in the 7DDR relative to the 24HR. For total energy, this bias equalled about 50 kcal/point on the social desirability scale or about 450 kcal over its interquartile range. The bias was approximately twice as large for women as for men and only about half as large in the post measures. Individuals having the highest 24HR-derived fat and total energy intake scores had the largest downward bias due to social desirability.

Conclusions: We observed a large downward bias in reporting food intake related to social desirability score. These results are consistent with the theoretical constructs on which the hypothesis is based. The effect of social desirability bias is discussed in terms of its influence on epidemiological estimates of effect. Suggestions are made for future work aimed at improving dietary assessment methodologies and adjusting risk estimates for this bias.

MeSH terms

  • Bias*
  • Diet Records*
  • Effect Modifier, Epidemiologic*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Desirability*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Truth Disclosure*
  • United States / epidemiology