The Need to Look Good

“The work of science is to substitute facts for appearances, and demonstrations for impressions.”
– John Ruskin

As social beings, humans have an innate need to fit in and appear desirable to others around them for a number of evolutionary reasons. While this desire to modify one’s behavior appropriately to appear socially acceptable works in our benefit in most cases (for e.g., helps us make friends, gain social favors from others, find partners, etc.), it can pose an obstacle in certain others. Modification of one’s behavior to appear more “good” than one is might lead to inappropriate judgments of individuals in certain critical and high-stakes situations.

Employment and development assessments help drive decisions about hiring, promotion, succession, etc. in the workplace. In such situations, it becomes imperative to understand the true nature of an individual. Survey respondents/test takers often respond in a manner that would make them seem more desirable or “good” as a way of managing the impressions they make on others. This impression management behavior, which is also termed as social desirability, aids a test taker to appear more favorable; however, it can pose a serious threat to the integrity of an assessment and the decisions that an assessment process is likely to drive.

There are two forms of deception that a test taker can engage in: self-deception vs. other deception. Selfdeception is akin to a self-defense mechanism wherein test takers present a desirable image on aspects that are likely to be a threat to their own ego and self-image. On the other hand, other deception refers to a misrepresentation of information to appear good to others or to create an impression of oneself that is not entirely true.

Impression management in research and in assessments poses a serious threat to the validity of the insights and conclusions drawn and subsequently to the decisions made as a result of these insights and conclusions. There are, however, a few measures that assessors can take to reduce the impact of such impression management behaviors on assessments.

Assure anonymity: The more a test taker feels that his/her responses will be linked back to him/her (and therefore will lead to some judgment being made about him/her), the more likely he/she is to try to create a desirable impression. Although it is difficult to not tie an individual applicant’s responses to his/her identifying information while making hiring or promotion decisions, in certain situations such as gathering information about the workplace, employees’ levels of engagement, inputs on workplace policies, etc. where identifying information can be avoided, test takers should be assured of anonymity to gather more truthful responses.

Measure the level of impression management behaviors: Independent scales and norms can be used to measure how likely individuals are to engage in impression management and this information can be used appropriately to adjust test taker’s scores on assessments. Additionally, the level of prevalence of impression management in a particular culture can be pre-measured and the scores on assessments can be appropriately adjusted to make the decisions more accurate. For example, in collectivist cultures, it is considered inappropriate to be very boastful or talk highly about one’s own achievements. In such cultures, getting a sense of a test taker’s past work and accomplishments can be difficult since they are likely to be more humble than candidates coming from more individualistic culture. Therefore, scores assigned to such aspects on the assessment should be adjusted using culture-specific norms for impression management.

Measure item desirability: Certain assessment questions may be worded in a manner that may make it more likely for individuals to want to present a socially appropriate/desirable impression of themselves. Also, items measuring sensitive topics may push test takers to present themselves in a more favorable light. For example, items such as “I am always courteous even to people who are disagreeable” or “No matter who I’m talking to, I’m always a good listener” may make the test taker strongly agree or respond to say that they always engage in these behaviors, even if they don’t. This is especially true in high-stakes situations such as hiring or promotions. When designing a new scale or assessment, assessors can calculate the desirability of individual items on an assessment and decide whether and how to score those items or to change them accordingly.

Construct robust response-options: Often, assessment items make it easy for test takers to engage in social desirability. The difference between the “best” response and other response options is very stark and hence makes it easy for test takers to choose that response option even if it is not an accurate representation of themselves. Response options to assessment questions can be designed such that no one response option stands out as being “favorable” or “socially acceptable” in contrast to the other options. Assessment designers should consider making the difference between response options subtle. Along similar lines, assessments can be designed to have forced-choice response options. This requires candidates to pick between two equally desirable or undesirable response options. This forces test takers to take a firmer stance and present a more accurate picture than simply picking the best response option.

The need to represent ourselves in a favorable manner to others is innate to human beings. However, at times, it could pose a problem for making decisions that could impact an individual’s development and career. It is therefore imperative for assessors and test designers to have a good understanding of what is considered to be socially appropriate behavior in a particular situation/culture; how easy or difficult it will be for a test taker to try to create an impression of him/herself that is socially acceptable but is dishonest; and how to design a test that will appropriately combat such bias in the assessment results. Similar to any other assessment bias, impression management behaviors can skew the data and therefore threaten the usefulness of the assessment process. Assessors should be cautious and take appropriate measures to combat these at every stage of assessment development as well as execution.

Purnima Gopalakrishnan
Selection & Assessment,
Aon Hewitt
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