The Journal of Social Psychology, 2003, 143(5), 669-671

Age-related social desirability responding among Australian women

John J. Ray & Frances H. Lovejoy

University of New South Wales, Australia

The finding by Ray (1988) that there is an overall correlation (r) of about .3 among women but not among men existed between age and social desirability responding (i.e. presenting oneself in an unrealistically favorable light) was based on a range of adult general population surveys in several countries. Therefore, the findings must be regarded as one of the better-established findings in social psychology. Ray, however, examined only the linear relationship between age and scores on a form of the scale by Crowne & Marlowe (1964). The possibilities of curvilinear relationships were not explored and, regrettably, the original data are no longer available to allow us to examine whether the relationship is constant across all age ranges.

Large changes are associated with the mid-life crisis around age 40 (Sheehy, 1976) and they possibly account for the higher level of social desirability responding. The present study was designed to test this hypothesis.

Senior Sociology students at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, were asked to administer questionnaires to women they knew under the constraint (a) that no more than one person in three was to be educated above High School level and (b) 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. We took conventional precautions (mainly phoning back a sample of respondents) to ensure that the students did nor "fake" any responses. The full survey protocol is available from the second author.

The questionnaire contained the short version of the Crowne & Marlowe (1964) Social Desirability scale as used previously (Ray, 1988) and the Ray & Lovejoy (1984) sex-role scales (with subscales for masculinity and femininity). Age was requested in categories: 20-29, 30-39, 40-49 and 50-59, which were coded as 1,2.3 and 4 respectively. Categorizing age in surveys is a normal device for improving levels of co-operation and frankness.

In the total final sample (N=194), the r between age (coded 1,2,3,4) and Social Desirability score was .241 (p <.05) -- which is broadly similar to the levels (about .3) observed in the various previous samples. Considering the information lost as a result of the severe categorization of age in the present study, that was a satisfactory result. Given the brevity (8 items) of the Social Desirability scale, the coefficient alpha that was observed (.71) indicated satisfactory internal consistency. Social desirability responding was not significantly correlated with education (r = .036). Therefore confounding from that source can be ruled out.

The respective means, standard deviations and numbers observed for each age group on Social Desirability was as follows: for ages 20-29: 15.62 (3.88), 24; for 30-39: 17.53 (3.80), 71; for 40-49: 17.72 (3.57), 61; for 50-59 19.68 (3.49), 32. 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. Also women in their 50s rather than women in their 40s had the higher scores relative to the younger age-groups. Both the analysis of variance and the correlation between age-group and score showed the overall significance for the differences observed between the age-groups. These were F = 5.84 (d.f.s: 3, 188) and r = .241 (both ps <.05).

Ray (1988) suggested that the high Social Desirability scores observed among older women might be a compensation for loss of looks. Because considerable loss of looks (e.g. wrinkling) occurs after the menopause (which occurs about age 50) the higher scores in the present 50s age-group would seem to support that interpretation. 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.

A male sample with which to compare these results would prompt some interest. But in view of the previous results that indicated no overall relationship between social desirability and age among men, we did not consider that sample to be essential for the present study. A limitation of the present study is that the sampling was not fully random. But the agreement of the aforementioned overall correlation with the overall correlation observed in the previous random samples assures one of the usefulness of the present results.


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.

Ray, J.J., & Lovejoy, F.H. (1984) The great androgyny myth: Sex roles and mental health in the community at large. Journal of Social Psychology 124, 237-246.

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

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