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This is the original version (written in the year 2000) of an article published in a revised form as: Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (2003) "Age-related social desirability responding among Australian women". Journal of Social Psychology, 143 (5), 669-671. See here
A second article reporting additional findings (concerning female self-confidence) from the same study is to be found here


John J. Ray & Frances H. Lovejoy

University of New South Wales, Australia

The finding (Ray, 1988) that women (but not men) show elevated rates of social desirability responding in later life was based on a range of general population surveys in several countries so must be regarded as one of the better-established findings in social psychology. The findings concerned, however, examined only the linear relationship with age. The possibilities of curvilinear relationships were not explored.

This lacuna is not as arcane as it might seem. Just which age-groups contribute to the relationship? Large changes are associated with the mid-life crisis at around age 40 (Sheehy, 1976) so it seems possible that the higher level of social desirability responding might cut in then too. Does it? The present study was designed to test that.

Senior Sociology students were asked to administer questionnaires to women they knew under the constraint that no more than one person in three was to be tertiary educated and that women between 30 and 59 were the preferred respondents. The educational restriction was to counter the usual bias towards more highly educated respondents in such samples. Extensive precautions were taken to ensure that the students did not "fake" any responses.

The questionnaire contained the version of the Crowne & Marlowe (1964) social desirability scale as used previously plus short preliminary measures of a number of other constructs. Age was requested in categories: 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59 and 60-69.

In the total final sample (N=194), the r between age and Social Desirability score was broadly similar to that observed previously -- at .241 (p <.01). Considering the information lost by the severe categorization of age in the present study, this was a satisfactory result. Given the brevity (8 items) of the Social Desirability scale, the coefficient "alpha" observed (.71) indicated satisfactory internal consistency. Social desirability responding was not significantly correlated with education so confounding from that source can be ruled out.

Given that the overall relationship between age and social desirability responding was significant, how was it made up? The respondents comprised 24 women in their 20s, 71 women in their 30s, 61 in their 40s and 32 in their 50s. There were also 6 respondents in their 60s. The means (and S.D.s) for the first four age groups on Social Desirability were respectively 15.62 (3.88), 17.53 (3.80), 17.72 (3.57) and 19.68 (3.49). The numbers in the 60s age-group were deemed to be too small to permit meaningful analysis. Clearly then, the relationship with age was indeed curvilinear (a type of ogive) with stability in the middle (the 30s and 40s) but higher and lower scores at the extremes of the range. And it was women in their 50s rather than women in their 40s who had elevated scores.

Ray (1988) suggested that high Social Desirability scores (i.e. presenting oneself in an unrealistically favourable light) were a compensation for loss of looks in older women. As considerable "loss" of looks (wrinkling etc.) occurs after the menopause (which occurs roughly around age 50) the higher scores in the 50s age-group would seem to support this interpretation. The fact that the youngest respondents in the sample had the lowest scores might also implicate self-perceived looks as the crucial influence.

This theory would seem to lead to the testable predictions that both women younger than 20 and particularly attractive women should have the lowest social desirability scores of all.

Insofar as the mid-life crisis is conceived as occurring at around age 40, the unchanged scores after 40 would seem to rule out the mid-life crisis as an influence.


Crowne, D.P. & Marlowe, D. (1964) The approval motive N.Y.: Wiley.

Ray, J.J. (1988) Lie scales and the elderly. Personality & Individual Differences, 9, 417-418.

Sheehy, G. (1976) Passages: Predictable crises of adult life N.Y.: Bantam

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