Behavioural Tech-heads: What technology needs to learn from behavioural science

April 16, 2021

Alex Holmes
Research Director
Ellie Jacobs
Research Executive

Behavioural Tech-heads is a monthly series on Research World looking into what the technology industry can learn from behavioural science. It will cover the biases – both cognitive and behavioural – and psychological principles that offer the greatest contribution to the tech industry.

Social desirability bias

In this first installment of Behavioural Tech-heads we’ll be looking at social desirability bias.

What’s it all about?

Social desirability bias is the tendency to present ourselves in a manner which we believe those around us will perceive as favourable.

So, what does it really mean?

Social desirability bias influences us in almost all aspects of life. We all want to be liked by others (i.e., socially desirable). For example, it’s unlikely that someone who has driven after drinking alcohol will admit to doing so. Driving while under the influence isn’t a socially desirable behaviour so it’s preferable to not admit to doing so.

Social desirability bias can also be internalised. We can brush off the one or two instances in which we’ve behaved undesirably, seeing them as rare events and not reflective of who we are.

Social desirability bias, by its nature, varies between cultures and social circles. This is because it’s born out of the norms that we’re taught, surrounded by, and internalise. For example, people from individualistic countries may overstate their independence, self-reliance, and assertiveness. Whereas those from collectivist countries are more prone to understate those attributes.

Why’s it relevant today?

Social desirability bias is certainly not new news. However, there’s been a distinct rise in its presence in society and importantly for us, the world of marketing & branding. Consider the following:

  • 2020: The year of misinformation: 5G masters, Trump, anti-vaxxers – what do these issues have in common? They’re examples of the exponential rise in misinformation. 2020 was the year misinformation flourished. Technology has been a great accelerator – providing people with ways to voice their opinions instantly to a global audience, increasing the speed at which their opinions are spread and interpreted as facts, and the lack of a universal body to fact-check or counter this misinformation.
  • Rise of the echo chamber: Now more than ever, we engage only with people who think and behave like us. Amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re spending more time online, meaning we can be selective about who we speak to – preferring to converse with those whose opinions are in-line with ours. Times where we engage with people of differing opinions are now rare. Consequently, social desirability bias is amplified as we strive to appease, confirm, and bolster our beliefs.

What’s the importance for tech brands?

Social desirability bias’ rising prevalence can’t be ignored. It has wide-reaching ramifications for all tech brands, from start-ups to GAFAM brands (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft). It impacts them not only in the way that people will look to engage with their offerings, but also how they see and feel about themselves:

  • Data quality – A keystone to any GAFAM brands’ revenue generation is selling user data to inform targeted online advertising. Brands buy this data on the proviso that it’s an accurate depiction of the end user in terms of demographics, behaviours and, to a larger extent, mindsets. However, social desirability bias calls this into question. If our online activity is obscured by this bias and is essentially an attempt to present our “best self” rather than our true self, how can GAFAM brands claim that this is quality data?
  • Poor mental well beingAs people strive to present their desired “best-selves” online, they place an immense pressure on themselves to live up to this false identity. This pressure increases as the gap between an individuals’ true self & desired “best-self” widens and has an increasingly negative effect on mental well being. The fallout of this is that the finger is commonly pointed at the tech brands whose platforms allow such false display of people’s unattainable “best-selves”.
  • Digital detox/switching off –  As well as bearing the brunt of tech-related customer mental ill-health, tech brands are also faced with the ramifications of people “switching off”. As users wise-up to the damage that they may inflict upon themselves via technology & their continual, unattainable desire to become their “best-selves”, some are choosing to “switch off” or take a “digital detox”. This refers to prolonged (or sustained) periods of abstaining from using digital technology in any form. Obviously, this has serious implications for tech brands in how they’re appraised by their consumers.

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