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Differentiating fact from fiction, part III

Social desirability bias and irrational escalation


Making good decisions requires a careful, often painfully honest assessment of all the facts. Without an objective understanding of the variable odds of success for different decisions, we risk failure. (visit Part I & Part II for more information.)

The following two sources of decision-making bias round out this Insights series–

Social desirability bias

Critical business decisions often require background survey research on one’s current customers or, perhaps, assessment of an entirely different demographic you want to target for a new product. All surveys, however, needs to correct for ‘social desirability response bias.’ This is the tendency of respondents to provide answers that they believe are more socially acceptable. This dynamic involves over-report affirming, positive reactions and under-report what is perceived as less socially acceptable behavior or beliefs.

This underlying bias can also adversely affect the accuracy of information solicited from employees in one-on-one or group situations. Unless the leader/decision-maker clearly communicates that they want genuine, impartial feedback (and not support for a decision others may easily assume they just want ‘rubber stamped’) people will not respond honestly.


This is why survey and spoken queries need to avoid—

  • Leading questions, e.g.,—”Should concerned parents enroll their children in pre-school?” Instead, this is better phrased as—”Do you believe preschool is a good option for your children?”
  • Loaded questions, e.g., “Where do you enjoy drinking wine?” Instead, first ask whether the respondents drinks wine, to begin with, and let them skip over the question if they don’t.
  • Double-barreled questions, e.g., “How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your current job and income.” (Two different questions calling for two different responses).
  • Embedding absolutes in questions, e.g., ‘always, ever,’ etc., e.g., “Do you always eat lunch.” Instead, ask—”How many days a week do you eat lunch?”

Irrational escalation

Many folks have a tendency to invest emotionally in a decision, regardless of the outcome. This is also known as ‘the gambler’s fallacy.’ So, after investing heavily in a stock that tanks some investors will immediately reinvest in another ‘recommended’ stock without doing any due diligence.

Preventative strategies include—

  • Taking time before pulling the trigger by carefully researching the pros and cons of ‘escalating,’
  • Brainstorming at least three potential outcomes for any decision based on an in-depth analysis of all available information. This opens a person’s awareness to a wider range of variables that may come into play.
  • Actively seek out information that contradicts your assumptions.—This is the best defense against both irrational escalation and confirmation bias.
  • Add new potential outcomes after you’ve completed this process to give you the broadest possible understanding of your options. If the evidence supports postponing a decision, make sure to repeat the three above steps to factor in future changes before follow through.

More Insights