• idiographically desirable responding;
  • socially desirable responding;
  • self-report;
  • assessment;
  • self-esteem


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2


Conventional measures of self-report bias implicitly assume consistent patterns of overclaiming across individuals. We contrast this with the effects of individual differences in views of trait desirability on overclaiming, which we label idiographically desirable responding (IDR).


We obtained self-reports and peer reports of trait levels on mixed-sex samples of undergraduates (N = 352) and middle-aged community members (N = 541), with an additional performance-based assessment in the latter sample.


Compared to conventional measures of bias, individual differences in trait desirability ratings identified an independent and comparatively large amount of the variance in overclaiming for personality and physical attractiveness. The importance of IDR was confirmed by the replication of these results for intelligence, for which both peer-ratings and performance data were available. Individuals differed in the extent to which they rely on IDR, with these differences indexed by the correlation between views of the desirability of a given trait and the extent to which one overclaimed that trait. Individuals who were more prone to overclaim in this fashion exhibited higher self-esteem as well as higher scores on questionnaire measures of socially desirable responding.


Overclaiming of traits resulted both from the patterns of biases identified by conventional overclaiming measures and from individual differences in perceptions of what traits are most desirable. Copyright © 2013 European Association of Personality Psychology

Self-report measures of personality have a number of theoretical and practical virtues (Paulhus & Vazire, 2007), and a substantial body of literature supports their predictive utility in both basic research and applied settings (e.g. Roberts et al., 2007). Nonetheless, concerns over the vulnerability of these instruments to distortion have been raised for over a half-century (Edwards, 1957). A sizeable literature has developed to identify those who might provide biased self-reports, as well as the contexts that promote bias in these measures. In their survey of the various efforts to identify biased responding in self-report, Paulhus and John (1998) argued that existing measures typically capture one or another of two distinct patterns of distortion. ‘Egoistic bias’ refers to the tendency to claim high social and intellectual status, whereas ‘moralistic bias’ refers to the tendency to deny socially deviant impulses and behaviours. Instruments assessing each of these tendencies measure individual differences in the degree to which a person is prone to a given manner of response. An assumption implicit to these instruments is that, at least within each category of bias (i.e. egoistic or moralistic), the pattern of biased response—that is, the traits that people exaggerate—will be the same from one individual to the next.

This implicit assumption may obscure an alternative source of bias. The present study investigates the role of individual differences in perceptions of trait desirability in producing bias in self-reported trait levels. Rather than expecting misrepresentation in self-report to follow only one of a limited set of patterns (egoistic or moralistic), we additionally expect individuals to self-report higher levels of traits to the extent that they view them as desirable. The conceptions of ‘desirable traits’ operationalized in existing measures were derived from aggregations of individual opinions on traits (e.g. Jackson & Messick, 1962); this literature appropriately refers to its topic as ‘socially desirable responding’ (SDR) because it is the average desirability of the trait in society that is thought to provide the motivation for distortion. Consistent with this terminology, we label the phenomenon studied here ‘idiographically desirable responding’ (IDR) to indicate that it is each individual's personal views of the relative desirability of traits that are expected to be an importantly distinct source of misrepresentation in their self-reported personality.

Whereas a vast, venerable, and growing literature explores SDR, investigations of anything resembling IDR have been much rarer. This may reflect a belief that few meaningful differences exist between individuals' perceptions of the desirability of traits. This belief has some basis, as mean inter-rater correlations for ratings of trait desirability typically surpass .6 (e.g. Krueger, 1996). Nevertheless, Sinha and Krueger (1998) found indications of possible influence of desirability ratings on the overclaiming of a given trait, showing that individuals who rated a trait as more desirable than did others also tended to claim higher levels of that trait. This study provided an important first step towards examining IDR, but could not resolve the question of whether this association truly represented bias; their results are equally consistent with a tendency of individuals to rate as more desirable the traits they actually possess. That SDR measures have long been shown to measure at least as much true variance as bias in self-rated traits (McCrae & Costa, 1983; Ones et al., 1996) highlights the challenges to interpreting any association between self-reported trait levels and any proposed method of identifying bias. What is needed to do so effectively is evidence from an external criterion.

Borkenau, Zaltauskas, and Leising (2009) carried out the only study we know of to use an external criterion in an exploration of IDR. This study departed from most previous work on the topic in two ways. First, instead of assessing the relative desirability of traits, it assessed perceptions of the optimal level of traits. Second, it investigated how individual differences in these perceptions predicted distortions in self-reported personality. The optimal level of traits (e.g. talkativeness and suspiciousness) was assessed on a 6-point Likert-type scale by each subject, resulting in an idiographic index labelled the perceived optimal trait level (POTL). Significant associations observed between these ratings and peer-reported trait levels indicated that differences in views of optimal trait levels were, in fact, associated with differences in actual personality. However, ratings of optimal trait levels also predicted variance in self-report trait levels not shared with peer report, indicating that POTL also represents a source of bias in self-report.

Borkenau et al.'s (2009) use of peer-reported personality levels as a criterion to indicate ‘true’ trait levels is consistent with recommended practice in the field (Paulhus & John, 1998) and has considerable empirical and conceptual support (Connelly & Ones, 2010). At the same time, self-reports and peer reports of personality are consistently shown to provide mutual incremental improvement in predictive validity (Connelly & Ones, 2010), indicating that at least some of the variance not shared between self-reports and peer report is reflective of true trait levels. Having established POTL as an indicator of true trait variance, the results of Borkenau et al. (2009) leave open the possibility that some (or even all) of the variance found in self-report but not peer report that is shared with POTL was in fact true trait variance. For this reason, the use of additional measures of ‘true’ trait levels would provide a more conclusive demonstration of the existence and import of IDR. While objective measures are infrequently used for traits such as extraversion and agreeableness, both SDR and IDR have obvious potential connections to attributes for which objective assessments are more widely employed, such as intelligence. Indeed, existing measures of SDR have already been shown to predict overclaiming of intelligence when compared to performance on an IQ test (Paulhus & John, 1998). The inclusion of such measures in addition to peer report would thus provide a more conclusive demonstration of IDR. For this reason, we included a performance test of intelligence in Study 2.

To quantify the extent of overclaiming present in self-reports, Paulhus and John (1998) suggested the use of self-criterion residuals (SCRs), in which bias is captured by the residual variance remaining after regressing a self-report measure on a criterion measure of the same variable. After the variance shared with the criterion has thereby been removed from the self-report, any variance due to biased responding is thought to remain in the residual. SCRs have been repeatedly used in studies of SDR measures (Paulhus et al., 2003; Pauls & Crost, 2003), and the relative effectiveness of SDR and IDR at identifying these residuals is therefore of interest. Further, such a comparison is needed to investigate the independence of SDR and IDR. The importance of IDR would be supported if it could predict variance in SCRs over and above measures of SDR.

Both SDR and IDR can be operationalized in several ways. A range of instruments assessing SDR have been developed in the past 50 years (Paulhus, 2002). With scales to assess both egoistic and moralistic bias, the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR; Paulhus, 1991) is among the most used in recent years. Procedures to assess IDR are less well established. The optimal-trait-level approach employed by Borkenau et al. (2009) has much to recommend it, including the important insight that the desirability of most personality traits is not a strictly linear function. However, this approach does not have the ability to compare differences in the degree of desirability of different traits: two traits may be matched perfectly in POTL but differ markedly in the desirability of attaining that level. As SDR measures were typically developed with an eye towards the relative desirability of a given trait (e.g. Edwards, 1953), an IDR index based on individual differences in the perceived desirability of a trait may be the most direct method of comparison between SDR and IDR.

We have thus far stressed how individual differences in perceived trait desirability may lead to individual differences in which traits a given individual overclaims. We expect these effects to be evident among the population as a whole, with those who view a trait as particularly desirable the most likely to have overclaimed that trait. But there may also be individual differences in this tendency: that is, some individuals may be particularly prone to overclaim the traits they personally view as desirable.

Differences of this nature are plausibly connected with several extant constructs. For example, those who are particularly prone to overclaim the traits they personally view as desirable (IDR) may also tend to overclaim traits viewed as desirable by society at large (SDR). This would suggest a general willingness to overclaim desirable traits and would be supported if high scorers on SDR measures were also more prone to IDR.1 Further, just as those high in SDR tend to exhibit high self-esteem (Mar, DeYoung, Higgins, & Peterson, 2006), individual differences in IDR may show the same relationship, as those with a positive view of themselves may be particularly prone to believe they have the traits they view as desirable.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2

We present results from two studies that show how individual differences in trait desirability connect both to true differences in personality and to bias in self-reports. The sample for Study 1 consisted of members of romantic couples who provided personality ratings both for themselves and for their partner in addition to completing a measure of the desirability of those traits. We examined correlations between trait desirability ratings and partner ratings to test whether trait desirability is associated with accuracy in self-report. To test whether trait desirability is associated with bias in self-report, we examined the correlations between trait desirability and SCRs obtained by regressing self-ratings on partner ratings. Individual differences in the tendency to be influenced by IDR were also examined.



We recruited 187 heterosexual couples via advertisements on the psychology department research website and flyers posted throughout the campus and surrounding neighbourhood of a large public university. All recruitment materials specified that couples had to be at least 18 years of age and dating for a minimum of 3 months and a maximum of 1 year. Of the 176 couples to provide complete data, the average relationship length was 10.5 months (SD = 13.04, median = 7). The mean age of the women was 20.5 years (SD = 4.28), and the mean age of the men was 21.46 years (SD = 4.77). The majority of participants were Caucasian (83.8%), 11.4% were Asian, 2.2% were Hispanic, less than 1% Black, and 4% other or declined to provide ethnicity. Ninety-five per cent of participants reported dating their partner exclusively; three couples were engaged. Each participant was compensated with $25 or 10 extra credit points to use towards a psychology course. Both partners of each couple independently completed online measures.


Personality (both self-ratings and peer ratings) was assessed using a shortened version of the Big Five Aspect Scales (BFAS; DeYoung et al., 2007). The BFAS allows for assessment of personality traits both at the level of the Big Five and at the sublevel of the two aspects within each domain. The shortened version of the scale used in this research included four items assessing each aspect of the Big Five instead of the full 10 items, for a total of 40 items. The four items were selected based on validity evidenced in multiple samples of undergraduate students previously collected. Each item was correlated with overall scores on the Big Five and aspects as measured by the full 100-item BFAS. Then, correlations between each possible four-item scale with overall scores on the full BFAS were calculated. The four-item scales that showed the highest correlations (rs = .82 to .94) with the full BFAS scales and evidenced the greatest reliability (αs = .64 to .81) were chosen. The short BFAS was repeated with different instructions in order to assess both ratings of one's own personality (self-ratings) and ratings of one's partner's personality (peer ratings). Participants rated each item in terms of how well the statement described the self or the partner using a 5-point scale on which 1 was labelled strongly disagree and 5 was labelled strongly agree.

Ideal self

The short BFAS was repeated with different instructions in order to assess one's ideal personality. Instructions read as follows: “Here are a number of characteristics that may or may not describe your current ideal self. For example, do you agree that you ideally would seldom feel blue? Please fill in the number that best indicates the extent to which you agree or disagree that each statement reflects your ideal self. Be as honest as possible, but rely on your initial feeling and do not think too much about each item”.

Participants rated each item in terms of how well the statement described the ideal self on a 5-point scale on which 1 was labelled strongly disagree and 5 was labelled strongly agree. A selection of 5 on ‘seldom feel blue’ indicates that they strongly agree that their ideal self would seldom feel blue and thus represents the desirability of this trait. Desirability ratings for each of the Big Five trait were then computed by taking the mean of each of the relevant ratings.


Two different SCRs were obtained using peer report as the criterion measure. The first assessed differences between participants in the extent to which they overclaimed or underclaimed a single trait (e.g. Extraversion), relative to other participants in the sample. We label this SCR a ‘within-trait self-criterion residual’ (WT-SCR). These SCRs are an individual difference measure appropriate for comparisons across participants—for example, testing the association between the desirability of a trait and the extent of overstatement of that trait in the sample as a whole. WT-SCRs were obtained by regressing the self-report scores for a given trait on the peer-report scores across all participants, with the standardized residuals saved as a new variable and used for later analysis. This procedure removes the variance in self-reports that is shared with peer-reported trait levels, leaving in the residual any tendency to represent trait levels as higher or lower than what would be predicted based on partners' ratings. Thus, an individual with a large, positive WT-SCR for Extraversion overclaimed that trait to a greater extent than did most other participants.

The second SCR assessed the extent to which a given participant overclaimed or underclaimed one trait relative to other traits. We label this SCR a ‘within-participant self-criterion residual’ (WP-SCR). These SCRs are necessary for analyzing trends within an individual, such as the extent to which his or her misrepresentations of trait levels are predicted by personal views of trait desirability. WP-SCRs were obtained by regressing self-report scores for all traits on peer-report scores for all traits in a regression run across all traits within a single participant. Standardized residuals were saved as a new variable and used for later analysis. As with WT-SCRs, this procedure removes the variance in self-report of a trait that is shared with peer-reported trait levels, leaving in the residual any tendency of the individual to represent the level of a given trait differently than would be predicted by the partner's ratings of that trait. WT-SCRs and WP-SCRs differ in that the former uses variance in self-reported levels of a given trait by the entire sample, while the latter uses variance in self-reported levels of all traits within a given individual. The WP-SCRs can thus be described as an index of the extent to which an individual overclaims each trait relative to the other traits, whereas the WT-SCRs can be described as an index of the extent to which an individual overclaims each trait relative to other individuals.

Although our sample size provides a good deal of power for analyzing across-participant comparisons for each trait (WT-SCRs), the power for within-subjects comparisons (WP-SCRs) is determined by the number of traits being analyzed. The number of traits assessed is much smaller than the number of participants, and thus, it is more difficult to achieve adequate power in analysis of WP-SCRs. Therefore, although WT-SCRs were computed using aggregated Big Five traits, WP-SCRs were computed using each of the 40 items assessed in the short-form BFAS. Thus, a participant with a large, positive WP-SCR for ‘Have a lot of fun’ overclaimed that item more than he or she overclaimed other items.

Finally, although our construct of interest concerns the tendency to exaggerate traits because of their idiographic desirability, differences in the way people use Likert scales may also influence the associations of trait desirability with self-reports and thus with SCRs. For example, individual differences in tendencies such as extreme responding (in which individuals predominantly use the ends of the Likert scale) will produce an increase in associations between all self-report measures. This would exaggerate the role of idiographic desirability in inducing overclaiming, and a more conservative test of IDR requires eliminating effects due to extreme responding. To remove any such effects from desirability ratings, we created residuals for each of the Big Five, predicting each trait in turn with the remaining four. These residualized desirability ratings thus contained the desirability a given individual assigned to that Big Five trait after removing any variance shared with the desirability ratings of other Big Five traits, including any variance due to extreme responding. It was these residualized desirability ratings that were then used in the analyses; supplementary analyses using nonresidualized desirability ratings provided substantively the same pattern of associations that is reported here, although with slightly larger values.


Desirability ratings for each trait were strongly correlated with self-report ratings for the same trait. As shown in Table 1, desirability ratings were highly correlated with their corresponding self-rating across the Big Five (e.g. the association of Openness/Intellect desirability ratings and Openness/Intellect self-ratings was .64), with a mean association of .60. Further, these associations were highly specific: the absolute value of every cross-trait correlation (e.g. between Openness/Intellect desirability and Emotional Stability self-ratings, r = −.06) was below .20, and the mean of the absolute values of all cross-trait correlations was .07.

Table 1. Associations of trait desirability with personality and self-criterion residuals in student sample
  Trait desirability
  1. Note: Each value is a correlation across 176 targets of their ratings of the desirability of a trait with trait levels as indicated by self-report and by peer report as well as with self-criterion residuals for a trait. Predicted relationships are in bold and are all significant at p < .001. Unpredicted relationships significant at p < .05 (uncorrected for multiple testing) are in italics. O, Openness/Intellect; C, Conscientiousness; E, Extraversion; A, Agreeableness; ES, Emotional Stability.

Peer reportO.32−.05−.07.12.01
Self-criterion residualsO.55−.13.04−.03−.12

The association of desirability ratings with self-ratings of trait levels may indicate the presence of a true association in which individuals value the traits they actually possess, but it is also consistent with an idiographic response tendency in which people over-report the presence of traits they value. A third option is that both accuracy and bias in self-reported personality are indicated by these associations. To address the question of accuracy, we explored the association between the target's ratings of trait desirability and peer ratings of the target's personality. As with self-reported personality, Table 1 shows that highly significant associations were generally found between desirability levels and peer-reported trait levels, with a mean association across the Big Five of .31. These associations were also highly specific, with no cross-trait association above .20 in absolute value and a mean absolute cross-trait association of .04.

There are thus clear indications that trait desirability ratings are associated with actual personality levels. Nevertheless, the magnitudes of the associations with peer-reported personality were considerably smaller (mean of .31) than they had been with self-reported personality (mean of .60). It is thus worth exploring possible associations with bias—that is, whether those rating a trait as particularly desirable tend to systematically over-report their levels of the trait in question. The associations between trait desirability and WT-SCRs shown in Table 1 indicate that an effect of this nature is present, with strong associations for all traits and a mean association of .52. These effects are also highly specific, with only one cross-trait correlation above .20 in absolute value and a mean absolute cross-trait association of .07.

The substantial associations between trait desirability and WT-SCRs indicate that someone who views a given trait as highly desirable is more likely to overclaim that trait than is someone who views the trait as less desirable. (For negatively valenced traits, the converse holds: someone who views a trait as particularly undesirable is more likely to underclaim that trait than is someone who views the trait as less undesirable.)

To explore whether participants differed in the degree to which their views of trait desirability influenced their tendency to overclaim or underclaim a particular trait requires analyzing the associations between desirability and SCRs computed within each participant (WP-SCRs). The mean and median correlations between desirability ratings and WP-SCRs were .46 and .49, indicating that the average participant's tendency to overclaim traits was strongly predicted by his or her perception of the desirability of those traits. The tendency to overclaim or underclaim traits based on desirability appears to be reliably assessed (the Spearman–Brown adjusted split-half reliability of odd-numbered and even-numbered items was .77) and to vary considerably between individuals (range: −.40 to .88, SD = 0.24).2


The correlations between people's self-reported ideal characteristics and the ratings provided by their partners of their actual characteristics indicate that, to a significant extent, people truly possess the characteristics that they view as valuable. At the same time, the associations between self-reported ideal characteristics and self-rated actual personality were considerably stronger, indicating that although people may tend to have the characteristics they value, this association may be stronger in their own perceptions than in reality. WT-SCRs index the remaining variance in a self-report after the variance shared with the criterion measure is removed and would thus capture any bias that was present in self-report but absent from the criterion. The strong correlation between self-rated ideal personality and these residuals indicates that bias of this nature was present. We believe this pattern is most consistent with a tendency to value the traits one has (shown by the association between peer ratings and self-rated ideals) as well as a tendency to imagine oneself as having slightly more desirable traits than one truly does. Using WP-SCRs, we further demonstrated that while the typical participant tends to overclaim traits as a function of how desirable he or she perceives that trait to be, considerable variance exists between individuals in this tendency.

One limitation of Study 1 is that only the partner's report of the target's personality was available as an indicator of true trait levels. Previous work has indicated that partners share similar values and may be prone to see each other in an overly positive light (Murray, Holmes, Bellavia, Griffin, & Dolderman, 2002). To the extent that this is the case, self-reported values of traits would show inflated associations with partner-reported trait levels and suppressed associations with SCRs obtained using partner report as the criterion. The use of an objective criterion measure is important for confirming the reality of the connection between trait valuation and true trait levels.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2

In Study 2, we looked to replicate and extend the results of Study 1. Whereas the latter had only one peer rater of trait levels, each trait in Study 2 was assessed with multiple raters, providing a more accurate picture of trait levels (Connelly & Ones, 2010). For a particularly rigorous test of IDR's ability to identify bias in self-report, we used an additional measure for one trait, assessing intelligence not only by peer report but also with an objective test. We also tested whether IDR's effects can be seen for traits outside of the mental domain by looking at physical attractiveness.

To establish the relative importance of bias due to IDR, its ability to predict overclaiming was compared against an established SDR measure. Finally, we explored the nature of individual differences in the tendency to engage in IDR. First, we hypothesized a connection between IDR and SDR, which would indicate the existence of a general willingness to claim desirable traits. Second, we hypothesized that those with a positive view of themselves would be more likely to believe they had the traits they viewed as most desirable, even to the point of overclaiming those traits.



Participants in this study were members of the Eugene–Springfield Community Sample (ESCS), a group that was recruited by mail from lists of homeowners in the Eugene–Springfield area. ESCS participants agreed to complete questionnaires delivered by mail over a period of 10 years beginning in 1994 in exchange for cash. In line with the community from which the sample was drawn, most participants identified as White (97%), with 1% or less identified as Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American, or declining to report their ethnicity. The sample is primarily middle aged (mean age = 51 years, SD = 12.36, range = 18–80) and reported a range of educational attainment, with a median of 2 years of post-secondary education completed. The measures used in the present study were assessed over a period of several years, reducing the total N available for analysis. We used all participants for whom data were available for self-report on personality and trait desirability, and two or more peer reports of personality. After excluding two participants whose responses indicated obvious inattention (all 100 trait desirability ratings were marked as ‘neither desirable nor undesirable’), our sample for the primary analyses was 541 (58% female), although a somewhat smaller portion of this pool had completed the additional measures of intelligence, SDR, and self-esteem. The 1520 individuals providing peer- report data were 61% male, ranging in age from 6 to 94 years (mean age = 48 years, SD = 17.81). Previous work on informant reports in this sample (DeYoung, 2006) showed no effect from removing younger raters from the sample, so the present analyses were conducted using all available peer reports.

Big Five

Big Five personality traits were assessed with a mailing of the 44-item Big Five Inventory (John & Srivastava, 1999) and Saucier's (1994) 40-item Mini-Markers (SMM), with two items added to each instrument assessing physical attractiveness. These measures were also completed independently by two or three peers who knew the participants well and were asked to rate them. Both instruments were completed in Fall of 1998 using a Likert-type scale with answers ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Scores for Big Five personality and physical attractiveness for both self-report and peer report were obtained by taking the mean of all items for each trait from both the Big Five Inventory and SMM, yielding alphas between .84 and .94. As significant correlations are often found between IQ and Openness/Intellect (DeYoung, 2011), it is no surprise that many of the Openness/Intellect items have high face validity for assessing intelligence (e.g. ‘unintelligent’ and ‘perceptive’). A subset of Openness/Intellect items judged by the authors to be most directly relevant to IQ was selected, including Complex, Deep, Intellectual, Philosophical, Unintelligent, ‘Is ingenious, a deep thinker’, and ‘Likes to reflect, play with ideas’. Post-hoc analyses confirmed that mean peer report for each item correlated at .25 or above with objective IQ, and the resulting seven-item scale had alphas for self-report and peer report of .84 and .87, respectively.


To assess individual differences in beliefs about the value of certain traits, participants were asked to rate ‘how desirable or undesirable you feel it is for others to be or act this way’ for a list of 97 characteristics constituted primarily by personality traits. Responses were provided in a mailing in summer of 2001, with participants rating each characteristic on a 9-point Likert-type scale anchored by ‘very undesirable’ and ‘very desirable’. Twenty-five of these adjectives are included in SMM, but an additional 54 were shown to be associated with a Big Five trait in Saucier and Goldberg's (1996) analysis of the factor structure of personality adjectives. Scores for the desirability of Big Five traits were obtained by taking the mean of the adjectives associated in those reports with a given trait, yielding scales with the following properties: Openness/Intellect (11 items, alpha = .78), Conscientiousness (19 items, alpha = .85), Extraversion (17 items, alpha = .68), Agreeableness (21 items, alpha = .87), and Emotional Stability (11 items, alpha = .61). The desirability of physical attractiveness is indicated by a composite of the desirability of ‘attractive’ and ‘sexy’, which correlate .46. Finally, several of the items have high face validity for assessing IQ: the authors identified Complex, Insightful, Perceptive, Philosophical, and Unintelligent, with the resulting scale yielding an alpha of .66. Each of these came from the Openness/Intellect scale. Sixteen remaining adjectives that were assessed in this sample did not have loadings above .30 on any Big Five trait in Saucier and Goldberg's (1996) analysis and were thus not incorporated in the present study.


Participants in the ESCS completed Cattell's 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire (Conn & Rieke, 1994) in 1996. Factor B of this instrument is a 15-item performance test of intelligence consisting of knowledge and reasoning problems with multiple choice answers. Previous work has found the scale to correlate .57 with Full Scale IQ from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale—Revised (Wechsler, 1981), supporting its use as an intelligence assessment (Abel & Brown, 1998).

Socially desirable responding

Tendencies towards SDR were assessed in the ESCS in 1998 with the BIDR (Paulhus, 1991). In this edition of the BIDR, two different dimensions of SDR are assessed: Impression Management (IM) and Self-Deceptive Enhancement (SDE). IM captures moralistic denial of socially deviant behaviours, whereas SDE measures egoistic overconfidence and claims to superiority. The alphas for these scales (IM = .82; SDE = .68) were comparable with that found in previous work (Li & Bagger, 2007).


The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) measures global feelings of self-worth and was administered in 1998 to ESCS participants with a 5-point Likert-type scale. The alpha reliability for this measure was .84 in the present sample.


Based on the rationale and methods described for Study 1, we obtained both WT-SCRs and WP-SCRs using peer report data for Big Five and attractiveness. For intelligence, we used objective performance as assessed by Cattell's Factor B in addition to peer report, as described further below. As noted earlier, WT-SCRs assess individual differences in the tendency to self-report trait levels differently than would be indicated by the criterion. In contrast, WP-SCRs identify differences within a person in the traits they most overclaim or underclaim.

The desirability ratings used in this study were also adjusted in the same fashion as Study 1 in order to reduce the role of response biases such as extreme responding (Paulhus & Vazire, 2007). We predicted the desirability for each trait from the desirability of the others in a regression and saved the residual, which thus represents the desirability of a given trait after removing the variance shared with the desirability ratings of other traits. (Because our assessment of IQ desirability derives entirely from Openness/Intellect items, it was not entered into the regression for other traits; its residual was thus obtained using all traits but Openness/Intellect as predictors.) It was these residualized desirability ratings that were then used in the analyses.


Trait desirability's association with single-criterion constructs

Replicating the results of Study 1, desirability ratings for the Big Five and attractiveness were correlated with self-report ratings for the same. As shown in Table 2, the associations between desirability ratings and their corresponding self-ratings were all highly significant, with a mean across the Big Five of .35. That is, the more an individual believed a given trait was desirable, the more of that trait he or she claimed to have. As with Study 1, these associations were highly specific, with a mean absolute value of Big Five cross-trait correlations of .05. Two such associations were significant at p < .05 (uncorrected for multiple testing) in both samples: those who viewed Openness/Intellect as desirable tended to report lower levels of Conscientiousness, whereas those who viewed Conscientiousness as desirable tended to report lower levels of Openness/Intellect. Outside the Big Five, beliefs about the desirability of attractiveness were modestly correlated with self-reported levels.

Table 2. Associations of trait desirability with trait levels and self-criterion residuals in adult community sample
  Trait desirability
  1. Note: Each value is a correlation across 541 targets of their ratings of the desirability of a trait with trait levels as indicated by self-report and by peer report as well as with self-criterion residuals for a trait. O, Openness/Intellect; C, Conscientiousness; E, Extraversion; A, Agreeableness; ES, Emotional Stability; Attract, Physical Attractiveness. Predicted relationships are in bold. All associations of .13 or greater are significant at .001; all associations of .08 or greater are significant at p < .05 (uncorrected for multiple comparisons).

Peer reportO.40−.18−.04−.02.07−.02
Self-criterion residualsO.35.00−.01−.05−.05.02

The association between self-ratings of desirability and peer ratings of the target's personality is shown in Table 2 and was also highly significant, with a mean association across the Big Five of .24. The relatively low association found for Emotional Stability is consistent with previous work showing relatively low peer accuracy for this trait (Vazire, 2010), as any true variance in personality associated with desirability ratings for Emotional Stability may be harder to detect because peer reports are a less effective criterion for this trait than they are for others. It may also be influenced by the relatively low alpha (.61) noted earlier for our scale assessing the desirability of Emotional Stability. The mean absolute value of all Big Five cross-trait associations was .05, indicating that these associations were highly specific. Outside of the Big Five, peer reports of the target's attractiveness were uncorrelated with the target's perception of the desirability of attractiveness (.06, p > .1), although targets who assigned high desirability to Agreeableness were viewed as slightly more attractive (r = .18, p < .001). Interpretation of these results is difficult because of the low reliability of the two-item scale used to indicate the desirability of this trait.

As in Study 1, trait desirability ratings do not simply indicate true trait levels (indexed by the various criteria) but are also associated with systematic overclaiming of the trait levels involved. Table 2 shows the associations between trait desirability and WT-SCRs, with significant associations for all traits and a mean across the Big Five of .26. These associations were highly specific, with a mean absolute value of the cross-trait correlations of .03. One such association was significant at p < .05 (uncorrected for multiple testing) in both samples, with those viewing Emotional Stability as desirable tending to understate their level of Agreeableness. Outside of the Big Five, those who viewed physical attractiveness as desirable were more likely to overclaim the trait.

This sample was more heterogeneous than that used in Study 1, but controlling for participants' age, sex, and education produced no substantive changes to the pattern of results presented in Table 2.

Desirability and multiple-criteria constructs

As discussed earlier, SCRs represent any variance in self-reported personality not shared with the criterion and as such have been proposed as an indicator of the extent to which an individual overclaims or underclaims a trait (Paulhus & John, 1998). Nevertheless, as self-reports have been consistently shown to incrementally improve the predictive validity of peer report (Connelly & Ones, 2010), some of the variance in self-report that accurately reflects trait levels may not be shared with peer reports. To the extent that this is the case, some of the variance in SCRs represents true variance in trait levels. This represents a potential challenge to the interpretation of the association between desirability and SCRs as a demonstration for IDR. One way to surmount this challenge is to compare peer reports to a more objective criterion, which we did in the present context using the trait of intelligence, for which we have a performance-based measure as well as peer-report levels.

As shown in Table 3, intelligence behaves similarly to the traits discussed earlier: perceptions of the desirability of intelligence are associated with self-reported levels, true trait levels, and SCRs. Consistent with expectations, peer reports did not remove all true trait variance from self-reports: a WT-SCR created using peer report was modestly but significantly associated with performance on our intelligence measure (r = .16, p < .001). At the same time, trait desirability is significantly associated with a dual-criterion WT-SCR (which has had variance in self-report shares with peer report and with objective intelligence); in fact, this correlation is not smaller (p > .1) than was the correlation between desirability and the peer-report WT-SCR. Thus, the effects of IDR are not only present even when using multiple indicators of trait levels, but the addition of an objective measure of trait levels did not provide a significant reduction in the ability of trait desirability to predict overclaiming. The heavy reliance on peer-reported trait levels as criteria in studies of overclaiming (Paulhus et al., 2003; Pauls & Crost, 2003) thus appears to be well-justified, particularly given the difficulty of performance-based measurement of Big Five trait levels (Furr & Funder, 2007).

Table 3. Intelligence: Associations between desirability, trait levels, and self-criterion residuals (SCRs)
 DesirabilitySelf-ratingPeer rating
  1. Note: Cells are marked with an X if one variable was used to compute the other. All values are significant at p < .001. Cattell, Cattell's Factor B.

Peer rating0.380.53 
SCR—peer and Cattell0.27XX
Socially desirable responding

The results reported earlier indicate that individual differences in perceptions of trait desirability are associated both with true differences in personality and with a tendency to overclaim traits viewed as desirable. Consistent with previous studies (Pauls & Stemmler, 2003), we found that two existing scales measuring SDR (IM and SDE; Paulhus, 1991) are associated with bias in personality self-report. As shown in Table 4, IM is associated with a tendency to overclaim these same characteristics as measured by WT-SCRs. SDE predicts a tendency to overclaim these traits as well as both Openness/Intellect and Intelligence. (We use the intelligence residual that removed the variance from both peer report and objective intelligence for the analyses presented in Tables 4 and 5.)

Table 4. Correlations of the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding scales with self-criterion residuals
  Impression ManagementSelf-Deceptive Enhancement
  1. Note: Associations in bold are significant at p < .01; associations in italics are significant at p < .05 (uncorrected for multiple testing).

Self-criterion residualsOpenness/Intellect−.02.13
Emotional Stability.30.39
Table 5. Overclaiming predicted in multiple regression using Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR) scales and trait desirability
  1. Note: Participant scores for self-criterion residuals for each trait were predicted simultaneously by the BIDR scales and the participant's rating of the desirability of this trait. IM, Impression Management; SDE, Self-Deceptive Enhancement; O, Openness/Intellect; C, Conscientiousness; E, Extraversion; A, Agreeableness; ES, Emotional Stability; Attract, Physical Attractiveness.


Results from multiple regressions in which overclaiming of a given trait was predicted simultaneously by the desirability of that trait as well as IM and SDE are presented in Table 5. Desirability ratings remained significant predictors for their respective traits and were superior to IM and SDE in predicting overclaiming for Openness/Intellect, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and intelligence. To confirm the independence of IDR from SDR, we ran two stepwise multiple regressions for each trait. The first of these entered the BIDR measures first and then tested for improvements in R2 after entering trait desirability ratings. The second entered desirability ratings first and then tested for improvements in R2 after entering BIDR scores. In both of these analyses, all associations identified as significant in Table 5 produced significant improvements in R2, confirming the independence of SDR and IDR.

Individual differences in idiographically desirable responding

Participants in Study 1 varied in the extent to which desirability influenced a given participant's level of overclaiming or underclaiming trait levels. To replicate this result, we analyzed the associations between WP-SCRs with trait desirability levels within participants in Study 2. Within-subjects comparisons would not be adequately powered at the level of the Big Five, but as noted earlier, 25 of the 44 adjectives assessed in SMM were also included in the desirability assessment, with nearly equal representation across the Big Five (O:5, C:4, E:5, A:6, and ES:5). We obtained correlation coefficients for each participant that indicated the association between WP-SCRs and trait desirability levels for these traits. The mean and median correlations for the sample were both .26, with a considerable range around this value (range: −.41 to .87, SD: 0.21), replicating Study 1's finding of variation in the tendency to overclaim or underclaim traits based on desirability. Estimates of this value appear to be reliable, as indicated by a Spearman–Brown adjusted split-half reliability (based on odd-numbered and even-numbered items) of .60; this is lower than was found in Study 1, as might be expected based on the smaller number of traits available for analysis than in this sample.

Finally, this index of IDR-based bias was associated with existing constructs. High scorers also tended to be high in self-esteem (r = .17, p < .001) and to score highly on SDR (SDE r = .21, p < .001; IM r = .10, p < .05).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2

Desirable responding: two approaches

Although a vast literature demonstrates the practical utility of personality as measured by self-report inventories, concerns over the accuracy of such reports are almost as old as the inventories themselves (Edwards, 1957). The range of measures developed to identify the tendency to misrepresent one's personality in such assessments is often discussed as tracking two distinct patterns of such misrepresentation, with some measures (e.g. IM: Paulhus, 1984; Wiggins' SD scale: Wiggins, 1959) primarily assessing a tendency to deny socially deviant impulses, whereas others (SDE: Paulhus, 1984; Edwards' SD scale: Edwards & Walker, 1961) identify those more prone to represent themselves as exceptionally talented and socially prominent. These patterns of moralistic and egoistic bias are thought to have different motivations (Paulhus & John, 1998) and different eliciting contexts (Paulhus & Trapnell, 2008), showing that causes and patterns of bias in self-report personality are too diverse to be captured by a single construct.

An additional body of intriguing recent work has looked to identify differences in SDR by measuring the extent to which an individual's self-report of personality traits matches the desirability ratings for those traits as provided by a group of raters (Asendorpf & Ostendorf, 1998; Konstabel, Aavik, & Allik, 2006; Saucier, 1994) rather than relying on purpose-built SDR scales. But whereas these lines of research have identified individual differences in the extent to which people tend to bias self-reports according to universally applicable patterns of values, a few studies have pursued an alternative path, looking at individual differences in which traits are desired. Sinha and Krueger (1998) showed that differences in perceived trait desirability predicted differences in the self-reported trait levels, although because their study lacked a comparison to a criterion, it remained unclear whether this finding indicated misrepresentation. More recently, Borkenau et al. (2009) reported that individual differences in POTL were associated with self-reported trait levels. Using peer-reported personality as a criterion measure, this association was shown to partially reflect reality: POTL was significantly associated with the peer-reported level of that trait. At the same time, POTL ratings were more closely matched to self-reported personality than to peer report. Borkenau et al. (2009) interpreted the latter association as an indication that POTL acts as a source of bias in personality self-report. However, having established POTL as an indicator of true trait variance, it is also possible that some or even all of the variance found in self-report but not peer report that is shared with POTL was in fact true trait variance. The use of additional indicators of trait levels is needed to clarify the extent to which this relationship between POTL and self-report reflects true variance or bias.

In the present study, we expanded on these previous findings. Rather than assessing the effect of perceptions of what trait level was optimal, we looked at the effect of perceptions of how desirable the trait was. This is similar to the procedure used in the development of SDR measures (e.g. Jackson & Messick, 1961) and allowed the use of multiple regression to demonstrate the independence and relative importance of IDR and SDR. As expected, ratings of trait desirability were associated not only with actual trait levels but also with the tendency to misrepresent oneself in self-report of trait levels. Per recommended practice (cf. Paulhus & John, 1998), bias was measured with SCRs. Our observation of an association between SCRs and independent measures of trait levels is consistent with the ability of both self-report and peer-report trait levels to incrementally improve each others' validity (Connelly & Ones, 2010). Despite these associations, however, SCRs remain an effective index of bias, particularly with peer-report trait levels as a criterion: a dual-criterion SCR for intelligence was not significantly less associated with trait desirability than was one created using only peer report. This finding indicates the robustness of IDR. Further, IDR's capacity to predict bias was independent of bias predicted by SDR measures, and for most traits, IDR was as an equal or even superior predictor.

Bias in self-reports based on perceived trait desirability was shown to exist as both a mean-level phenomenon (with most participants tending to overclaim traits to the extent that they view those traits as desirable) and an individual difference characteristic, with some participants more prone to this tendency than others. These differences in level of IDR have modest but significant associations with social desirability measures, indicating the potential presence of a common tendency behind the bias of self-reported personality in both a socially and idiographically desirable manner. IDR was also more pronounced in those with more positive global self-evaluations, as indicated by the associations with Rosenberg's Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965). As previous work has indicated that high scorers on measures of self-worth may be more prone to SDR (e.g. Paulhus & Reid, 1991), our finding that those with high self-worth also overclaim the traits they personally view as desirable is expected.

Comparisons between the two studies

Our results suggest that the effect of individual differences in perceived trait desirability is robust to different methods of assessment. In the first study, participants rated their ideal selves, whereas participants in Study 2 were asked to evaluate the desirability of a given trait in other people. To the extent that an individual holds different views of the desirability of a trait based on the individual possessing the trait (themselves versus others), these different assessment methods may partially account for the fact that stronger associations were observed between desirability and personality in Study 1 than in Study 2 (although because the samples were demographically quite different as well, the source of this difference remains speculative). Also important for this question are the differences between Studies 1 and 2 in timing of the assessments: the assessments for Study 1 were contemporaneous, whereas Study 2 had a 2-year gap between the assessment of personality and trait desirability. Although personality is highly stable over time (Roberts, Wood, & Caspi, 2008), an interval of this length is likely sufficient to produce some meaningful changes in rank-order personality (Ludtke, Roberts, Trautwein, & Nagy, 2011; Specht, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2011). Any such change would likely attenuate the relationship between desirability and personality, consistent with the smaller associations observed in Study 2.

Trait desirability ratings thus showed substantially higher associations with both self- and peer personality ratings in Study 1 than in Study 2, though with the present data it is not possible to determine whether this derives from the different methods of assessing desirability or instead results from demographic differences between samples or the time gap between assessments in Study 2. These factors may also have affected the associations between desirability and SCRs. Should individuals differ in the extent to which they believe a trait is desirable in themselves rather than in others, it may be the former that better predicts overclaiming. Similarly, time discrepancy in the assessment of desirability and of personality would attenuate the connections between the two. Finally, the SCRs in Study 1 likely contained more true trait variance than did those of Study 2, as the former study had only a single peer report available to identify and remove true trait variance from the SCR. Each of these is consistent with the observation of stronger correlations between desirability and SCRs in Study 1 than in Study 2. At the same time, it is possible that the SCRs from both studies had lost some variance in self-reports that reflected overclaiming, as those who provided peer ratings of trait levels tended to be relationship partners, family members, and friends. To the extent that those in such relationships have similar views of which traits are desirable and tend to provide an overly positive report on their peer, the effects of IDR will be underestimated in studies relying on such reporters.

Another important comparison between the results obtained in our two studies concerns the cross-trait associations. As no such associations were hypothesized and very few of those observed in one sample were replicated in the other, we are doubly reluctant to offer substantive interpretation of them. Nevertheless, the reciprocal negative association between the desirability and self-ratings of Openness/Intellect and Conscientiousness (found in both studies) is intriguing: these two traits have opposing associations with political orientation, with liberals characterized by high Openness/Intellect and low Conscientiousness (Hirsh et al., 2010). The observed association is also consistent with Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham's (2004) compensatory theory, in which those in a competitive work force who are low in cognitive ability may compensate by becoming more Conscientious. As expected, supplementary analyses indicated that those who rank Conscientiousness as highly desirable tend to be lower in cognitive ability, as assessed by our performance measure (r = −.20, p < .001).

Considerations for future work

One area for future work concerns clarifying the relations between individual differences in overclaiming based on IDR and scores on measures of SDR and self-esteem. The associations found in Study 2 are likely an underestimate of both of these associations, because of ceiling effects produced by the limited range of response options available in the personality assessments. Consider the effects of a 5-point Likert-type format in the case of an individual's rating a given trait as extremely desirable or undesirable. The positive correlation of desirability ratings with self-reported and peer-reported personality reported earlier indicates that such individuals will likely be rated extremely on this trait by both themselves and their peers. Such an event was not infrequent: even in Study 2, which relied on multiple peer raters, roughly 20% of our sample had mean peer ratings of 1 or 5 for any given individual adjective, although aggregated trait ratings such as for a Big Five trait were much less affected by this. At a conceptual level, this can be seen to impair our ability to rate individual differences in the tendency to overclaim or underclaim trait levels based on desirability, as the traits that individuals were most likely to overclaim were also those that they were not able to, given that their peers assigned them the most extreme score available for that trait.

At an empirical level, the consequences of this limit appear to have had an effect: supplementary analyses on sample 2 treated all traits for which a given participant was given a 1 or 5 mean peer score as missing for that subject when computing WP-SCRs and correlating them with desirability ratings. Although the reduced number of variables available for assessing each subject's tendency to rely on IDR would ordinarily reduce the accuracy of the resulting value for each participant's IDR, in this analysis, the resulting index of individual differences in IDR showed slightly stronger associations with the various criterion variables (SDE, IM, and self-esteem). Future work on the topic should allow for a wider array of response options, ideally allowing extreme designations such as ‘top 1%’ to allow subjects to identify truly extreme scorers more clearly. This work will make it easier to identify individual differences in IDR, a necessary step towards clarifying the extent of overlap between differences in IDR level and existing constructs. In particular, a more precise estimate of differences in IDR level than was possible in the present study may allow researchers to differentiate between the motivations and the outcomes for different patterns of self-enhancement. For example, individuals who tend to overclaim a trait in proportion to their own views of its desirability might be expected to be high in self-esteem, whereas those who are more prone to overclaim a trait in proportion to consensual views of its desirability might be expected to score high in IM.

Future research may also look to explore the development of the association between perceived desirability and actual trait levels. Supplementary analyses from Study 2 suggest that some of the typically observed mean-level changes in personality (increases in A, C, and ES in adulthood, with decreases in E and O; Roberts et al., 2006) may be matched by changes in the desirability of these traits over time: older participants viewed Extraversion as less desirable (r with age of respondent: −.14, p < .001) and Conscientiousness as more desirable (r = .21, p < .001), whereas Agreeableness and Openness/Intellect had insignificant associations in the expected direction (r = .03, p > .2; r = −.02, p > .3). Contrary to expectations, Emotional Stability was viewed as less desirable by older participants (r = −.14, p < .001). Longitudinal data are required to determine whether any associations of this nature might indicate that changes in personality over time are preceded by changes in the perception of the desirability of traits.

Finally, as with any demonstration of the flaws inherent to self-report measures, our study highlights the usefulness of alternate sources of information on trait levels such as peer report. One unique contribution provided by the present work concerns how certain research questions in personality may derive particular benefit from the use of non-self-report data to indicate trait levels. Specifically, any studies whose outcomes of interest might reflect value differences between individuals are likely to report systematically exaggerated trait–outcome associations, as those value differences will affect not only the outcome measure but also the self-report of the supposed predictor. For example, a considerable body of literature has developed to characterize the self-reported personality differences of those with different orientations on social and political matters (reviewed in Jost et al., 2003; Sibley & Duckitt, 2008). However, as these domains are intricately connected with values, we should expect that their relationships with personality traits have been systematically distorted because of the effects of IDR, with those at different ends of the spectrum on sociopolitical issues misrepresenting their personality in a fashion consistent with the values reflected in their sociopolitical orientation. Research in this area and others that explore value-related outcomes would thus particularly benefit from the use of non-self-report measures of personality.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2

The present study highlights the importance of individual differences in producing biased self-reports. Existing measures effectively capture such differences in the extent of biased responding within certain common patterns (described as egoistic and moralistic bias) but are limited in their ability to assess differences in which traits a given individual is more or less prone to misrepresent. Individual differences in perceived trait desirability successfully predicted the traits for which a given individual's self-report would show more or less bias. This process may be more pronounced both among those with high self-esteem as well as those who score high on conventional bias measures. Future work may look to the role of differences in perceived trait desirability in areas such as personality development and sociopolitically based personality differences.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2

The authors would like to thank Lew Goldberg for providing access to the data used in Study 2. Sanford Weisberg provided helpful statistical guidance for this paper, and the authors are especially appreciative of the statistical and computational assistance provided by Laura Sunder-Plassmann.

  1. 1

    The interactions between individual and societal perceptions of trait desirability are likely quite complex, with different effects in different individuals and in different contexts. For an illustration of the idea at its simplest, consider four traits: Trait A is viewed as neutral by both the individual and society, trait B is viewed as desirable by the individual but neutral by society, trait C as neutral by the individual but desirable by society, and trait D as desirable by both the individual and society. Those low in both IDR and SDR will report all traits accurately; those high in IDR but not SDR will overclaim A and B but report C and D accurately; those high in SDR but not IDR will overclaim C and D but report A and B accurately; those high in both SDR and IDR will report A accurately, overclaim D the most, and will overclaim B and C equally.

  2. 2

    The gaps between self-reports and peer reports can also be obtained using difference scores, and a highly comparable pattern of results was obtained when these were used in place of both WT-SCRs and WP-SCRs.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. STUDY 1
  4. STUDY 2
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