The results for the ratings of the items obtained
from the assigned online group are shown in Figure 1.
Six items were clearly rated more desirable (with means
above 3 on a scale of 1 to 5) and five items that were
rated as undesirable (with means under 3).
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Figure 2 summarizes the
results we obtained for the self-reported behavior for
the items. They strongly suggested a much lower level
of "socially desirable responding" in the online survey,
consistent with our original hypothesis.
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across the items, we can see that the size of the difference
in response patterns between the online and telephone
surveys varied greatly, and generally in the predicted
direction. However, the difference in responses was
not necessarily linked directly to the rated level of
social desirability of the item shown in Figure 1. For
example, the rated goodness of doing volunteer work
was the highest of the items (mean = 4.49), but there
was little difference between the two interview methods
(49 percent for online versus 52 percent for telephone);
while the rated goodness of going to church, mosque,
or synagogue was lower (mean = 4.12) but showed one
of the greatest differences (25 percent for online versus
56 percent for telephone). Therefore, while an item's
rating along the scale of "good" or "bad" distinguished
the direction of the difference between interview
methods, as shown in Figures 1 and 2, it was not particularly
informative concerning the size of the difference.
Most likely, there are factors other than rated "goodness"
that affect the size of the difference between the two
methods, such as the extent of embarrassment a person
feels when admitting to less desirable actions or thoughts,
or the extent to which a less-desirable behavior or
thought can be attributed to the character of a person
rather than the situation the person is in. If a measure
of such other factors could be developed, we might be
able to use it to predict more accurately differences
in item response between the two interview methods.
The biggest differences
suggest that Americans are particularly embarrassed
and uncomfortable when talking about their religious
observance (or lack of it), their lack of exercise,
their atheism or agnosticism, and their dental hygiene.
One suspects that other countries might have very different
levels of social desirability, and that different variables
would be higher or lower on their lists. But as observers
of the American scene, we are not at all surprised that
many Americans appear to be reluctant in telephone interviews
to admit to not believing in God, to not attending religious
services, to drinking alcohol, and to not exercising
regularly. We are also not surprised by other substantial,
if smaller, differences, with many Americans apparently
unwilling to tell interviewers that they often drive
over the speed limit, do not give money to charity regularly,
gamble, or have been diagnosed with depression.
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