Gender differences in social desirability and social approval bias in dietary self-report

Am J Epidemiol. 1997 Dec 15;146(12):1046-55. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a009233.


Social desirability (the tendency to respond in such a way as to avoid criticism) and social approval (the tendency to seek praise) are two prominent response set biases evident in answers on structured questionnaires. These biases were tested by comparing nutrient intakes as estimated from a single 24-hour diet recall interview (24 HR) and a 7-day dietary recall (7DDR). Data were collected as part of the Worcester Area Trial for Counseling in Hyperlipidemia, a randomized, physician-delivered nutrition intervention trial for hypercholesterolemic patients conducted in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1991 to 1995. Of the 1,278 total study subjects, 759 had complete data for analysis. Men overestimated their fat and energy intakes on the 7DDR as compared with the 24HR according to social approval: One unit increase in the social approval score was associated with an overestimate of 21.5 kcal/day in total energy intake and 1.2 g/day in total fat intake. Women, however, underestimated their dietary intakes on the 7DDR relative to the 24HR according to social desirability: One unit increase in the social desirability score was associated with an underestimate of 19.2 kcal/day in energy intake and 0.8 g/day in total fat. The results from the present study indicate that social desirability and social approval biases appear to vary by gender. Such biases may lead to misclassification of dietary exposure estimates resulting in a distortion in the perceived relation between health-related outcomes and exposure to specific foods or nutrients. Because these biases may vary according to the perceived demands of research subjects, it is important that they be assessed in a variety of potential research study populations.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bias*
  • Diet / psychology*
  • Diet Surveys
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marital Status
  • Mental Recall
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Assessment
  • Self Concept*
  • Self Disclosure
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Desirability*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires