Is self-reported social distancing susceptible to social desirability bias? Using the crosswise model to elicit sensitive behaviors

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Ulrich Thy Jensen


COVID-19, Social distancing, Cheating, Survey sensitivity, Crosswise model


Sensitive behaviors such as self-reported performance or (un)ethical behaviors often carry strong social connotations of appropriate or inappropriate conduct. In return, social norms can artificially inflate or deflate individuals’ responses and bias scientific results on their prevalence and effects. As a core part of governments’ mitigation strategy against the outbreak of COVID-19, social distancing might represent one of these behaviors. Can researchers expect honest responses when surveying citizens about their social distancing behaviors? This question is examined using the sensitive survey technique, “the crosswise model”, to elicit aggregate-level prevalence estimates of (1) self-reported social distancing, and (2) honest reporting in a prediction dice game. Since the number of wins in the dice game follows a known probability distribution, it offers an excellent setting for illustrating the utility of the crosswise model before applying it to self-reported social distancing. In a survey of 1,059 adults living in the US, the crosswise model outperforms direct questioning in revealing respondents’ dishonest behavior in the dice game. While the crosswise model also indicates some social desirability bias when asking respondents directly about their social distancing behaviors, the extent of this bias seems small and does not appear to overtly inflate individuals’ self-reported measures of social distancing.