Social Desirability Bias

a quote on Social Desirability Bias which refers to our tendency to respond in ways that we feel are more appropriate or socially acceptable to others, even if the responses are therefore untruthful.

Have you ever felt like you have to adjust your answer to a question in a certain way based on whom you’re talking to? Or have you ever felt like you need to act differently based on what people you’re around?

This is what is referred to as social desirability bias.

What is social desirability bias?

Social desirability bias describes our tendency to act or respond in a way that we believe is more socially acceptable, even if it doesn’t actually reflect how we feel or what we are thinking. It’s something we encounter on a daily basis. For example, when we express ourselves in a very politically correct way or even in the way we present ourselves on social media.

Generally speaking, the impact of this bias really differs based on person. For individuals with a higher need for approval, the desire to act or respond in a socially desirable might be higher than for someone who doesn’t seek as much approval.

To learn more about social desirability bias, we spoke to our very own Head of Science, Leonie Grandpierre!

P.S. You can listen to the full podcast episode with Leonie below!

How does social desirability bias impact the hiring process?

In the context of hiring, social desirability bias can express itself in many ways. However, one general pattern remains – it is present in almost every situation where you ask a candidate to judge themselves on an ability, personality or behaviour level. Basically any situation when there is a possibility to portray yourself as an individual and your skills in a certain way. 

Most commonly this happens either when candidates create their CV and motivation letter; as well as during pre-employment assessments, such as traditional personality questionnaires; and during interviews.  

Social desirability in a CV and motivation letters

When candidates create their CV, it is in most cases highly tailored to the job description of the role they are applying for. Even though initially it might not come across as inherently negative, the information presented tends to be more fluffed up than perhaps might be true. 

Same goes for motivation letters – we all want to showcase ourselves in the best way possible (=engage in socially desirable behaviour), and there is nothing bad about that. Yet, it can result in a skewed and untrue perception of who the candidate is and whether they are fit for the role they are applying for or not.

Social desirability bias in personality questionnaires

Be honest, how would you answer these questions during the hiring process: 

Traditional personality questionnaires primarily rely on self-reporting by candidates, which leads to the tendency for candidates to answer questions in a way they believe will be viewed favourably by the employer. This is precisely when social desirability bias occurs. 

As Leonie puts it:

As the hiring manager, when you look at the results of these questions, you are never going to know who was actually honest and who inflated their stories because they thought they need to answer in a way that would make them come across as more suitable for the job.

leonie grandpierre

Social desirability bias in interviews

Also during job interviews, candidates may engage in social desirability bias. This behaviour can result in a skewed perception of their true abilities and personality, leading interviewers to make hiring decisions based on what the candidate believes they want to hear rather what is actually true.

How can you minimize the impact of social desirability bias?

Social desirability bias can be minimized in the hiring process by using structured interviews, where all candidates are asked the same questions in the same order. This helps to ensure consistency in the evaluation of candidates and reduces the likelihood of interviewers being influenced by a candidate’s charming or persuasive demeanour.

Additionally, alternative assessment methods such as skills assessments can provide more objective and reliable information about a candidate’s abilities and working style. 

One of the most reliable tools for this are game-based assessments, here are only a few reasons why:

  • Games do not explicitly reveal what is being measured;
  • They are based on observational data rather than self-reporting, thus leaving no room for social desirability bias;
  • Games are immersive, thus making candidates forget that they are even being assessed.


Lastly, it’s important to train interviewers and hiring managers to recognize social desirability bias and to consciously focus on evaluating candidates based on objectively gathered information, rather than on their likeability or self-promotion skills.

Social desirability bias cheat-sheet

Social desirability bias cheat-sheet that with the definition of the bias, explanation of whe4re it's the most prominent in the hiring process and how to minimize it's impact

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