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Volume 5 Issue 3 Highlights



The Socially Desirable Response: Is It VolunTourism's Bane, Too?!?

For the last several years, I have been tracking a variety of survey results and statistical information published on voluntourism and volunteer vacations. The first observation I will share is that it may be time for a statistical chiropractor because something is definitely out of alignment. What respondents to surveys actually do and what they say they do or want to do is dramatically different. This has led me on a chase through the academic literature and, in what may be a eureka moment, I believe I have discovered at least one potential explanation: Socially Desirable Responding (SDR). It has been the bane of the 'green' movement and giving & volunteering over the years. Is it VolunTourism's Bane, Too?!?

What is Socially Desirable Responding (SDR)?

Broadly conceived, 'social desirability' as a response determinant refers to the tendency of people to deny socially undesirable traits or qualities and to admit to socially desirable ones. (Phillips & Clancy 1972)

(Paulhus 2002)

Quite often SDR is confronted in questions related to personal matters -

  • "how many drinks do you have per day/week?"
  • "how much do you weigh?"
  • "how many sexual partners have you had in your life?" (In this example, you can imagine that men might tweak this number higher, while women might have a tendency to lower it)
  • "how much & how often do you volunteer?"
  • "how much do you give/donate?"
  • "how often do you purchase 'green' products?"

"You mustn't always believe what I say. Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer."

Pablo Picasso (In Hall 2001)

Douglas P. Crowne and David Marlowe (Crowne & Marlowe 1960) developed the Social Desirability Scale (SDS). The SDS offers a series of thirty-three statements to which respondents answer true or false. Note how the statements are crafted using such terms as 'always' or 'never':

  • "I never hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble."
  • "I have never been irked when people expressed ideas very different from my own."
  • "No matter who I'm talking to, I'm always a good listener."
  • "I don't find it particularly difficult to get along with loud mouthed, obnoxious people."
  • "I'm always willing to admit it when I make a mistake."

You can get a feel from the examples given how these items could be, well, spuriously reported or "faked" as some academics have written.

Paulhus has done a brilliant job of breaking SDR into two biases - egoistic and moralistic. Egoistic bias is desribed as Moralistic bias is described as

Statistical Timeline & Setup

In 2005, the Travel Industry Association of America (formerly TIA, now the U.S. Travel Association) released results from a survey suggesting that roughly one quarter (25%) of respondents were interested in spending time doing volunteer work while on vacation. Less than six months later, Travelocity revealed, as part of its 2006 Travel Forecast Poll, (Editor's note: Travelocity Polls are best viewed in Internet Explorer browser - IE7 or higher) that roughly six percent of respondents would be taking a volunteer vacation in the year ahead. For the 2007 Travel Forecast Poll, Travelocity asked its members this question:

Eleven percent of respondents selected "Yes" in answer to this question. In October of 2007, Henry H. Harteveldt, with support from Peter Hult, published "Go Away And Do Good: Voluntourism, The Noble Niche" for Forrester Research. He writes, "Three percent of US online leisure travelers - - approximately 3.5 million US adults - - have taken a trip for volunteering/community service during the past 12 months."

Travelocity returned three months later (January 2008) with the 2008 Travel Forecast Poll [Editor's note: if you click on the link it becomes a powerpoint presentation]. In it, there were two items of interest. First, Travelocity asked respondents: "Have you ever taken a vacation with a volunteer/philanthropic component in the past?" 17.7% of respondents answered "Yes;" 82.3% answered "No." For the second question: "Which, if any, of the following do you plan to do in 2008?" possible response options, included:

  • Take trip specifically for a charitable cause (7.1% of respondents)
  • Extend trip for a charitable cause (31.2% of respondents)
  • No planned volunteer vacation (61.7% of respondents)

[Travelocity also offered a side-note on this: ]

In February 2008, MSNBC/Conde Nast released the results of their voluntourism survey in an article by Rob Lovitt (Lovitt 2008). Rob writes,

In April, a mere two months later, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Extension released the results of its first voluntourism survey of 1,400 U.S. adults. "About 40 percent of Americans," according to Henry Devries, "say they're willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, with another 13 percent desiring to spend an entire year." And three months later, July 2008, the Corporation for National & Community Service released its "Long-Distance Volunteering in the United States, 2007" Research Brief in which it estimated that 3.7 million Americans volunteered domestically at least 120 miles from their home in 2007.

In December 2008, Travelocity released the results of its 2009 Travel Forecast Poll. Utilizing the same question from the year prior: "Which, if any, of the following do you plan to do in 2009?"

  • Take trip specifically for a charitable cause (9% of respondents)
  • Extend trip with a volunteer component (4% of respondents)
  • No planned volunteer vacation (87% of respondents)

2008/2009 Travelocity Forecast Poll Comparisons

Which, if any, of the following do you plan to do in 2008? in 2009?
Take trip specifically for charitable cause

Extend trip...
- - for a charitable cause (2008)
- - with a volunteer component (2009)

No planned volunteer vacation
TOTAL Number of Respondents

Finally, the most recent survey of note (June 2009) was conducted by UCSD Extension as a follow-on to their Spring 2008 survey. According to Devries,

An Interpretation

If we take more than a cursory glance at the results of these surveys, we discover that there is a notable difference between the act of 'specifically' participating and the desire/plan to participate in a voluntourism trip. Given that 61.8 million Americans, roughly 26 percent of the adult population volunteered in 2008 (CNCS 2009), to imagine that nearly twice that number would be interested in traveling and volunteering - as indicated in the MSNBC/Conde Nast Poll and the UCSD Extension survey - seems out of kilter. Why the distinction?

(Hall 2001) offers two items that create challenges in surveys used to collect data on giving and volunteering:

  • the inability of respondents to accurately recall past behaviors introduces both random errors and probable downward biases to estimates of giving and volunteering
  • the tendency of some respondents to provide socially desirable responses may lead to an overreporting of giving and volunteering

Looking at Hall's second postulate, as the survey results we are targeting are those of a predictive nature, the possibility that individuals are "overreporting" the likelihood of engaging in voluntourism or volunteer vacations in the future is a reasonable hypothesis. To predict Social Desirability (SD) bias (Stocke' & Hunkler 2007) write:

Granted, to say that the only reason for a discrepancy between observable, measurable participation of voluntourists in voluntourism journeys and prediction of participation is the result of social desirability would be a poor conclusion. Taking a look at the work of Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (see this issue's UnXpected Column for more on this) and others, however, is it so far-fetched to imagine that some of the societal influences of our time could result in individuals over-estimating their potential participation in voluntourism? In saying they will participate, or plan to participate, as a means of impressing others? Not to mention, could the influence of 'status-seeking' also be present on some level for certain individuals?

Is Addressing SDR Even Plausible?

So we have a bit of a dilemma. (Phillips & Clancy 1972) state that taking "precautions" (such as assuring anonymity, stressing that there are no right or wrong, answers, etc.) in the conducting of surveys will not completely remove the tendency of people to want to be seen in a favorable way.

Is it possible to design surveys to account for socially desirable responding (SDR)? The use of focus groups, pilot surveys, and other methods can be implemented as (Hall 2001) points out. Conducting research to evaluate what, if any, (albeit, reasonable to hypothesize that SDR does exist) existing SDR is present in the realm of voluntourism investigations is also within reason.

Despite all of this, two big questions remain: 1) Will surveyors be inclined to even address SDR, especially practitioners in the tourism-related sector? and 2) To what extent can SDR be minimized or mitigated? This challenge becomes perhaps more complex when discussing face-to-face or telephone interviews as opposed to online surveys.

Michael H. Hall writes: (Hall 2001)

Concluding Thought

Presently, there is nothing in the literature to indicate that academic research or practitioner research is accounting for Socially Desirable Responding (SDR). Not that any grand enlightenment as to how to address this has been presented herein. Rather, it is hoped that this exploration of the possible influence of SDR on voluntourism-based research will catalyze discussion and, ultimately, action on the part of investigators to reduce the impact of SDR on the results of future studies. This, in turn, will provide a more accurate portrayal of the realities of voluntourism - not to denigrate it, but to galvanize its position as a formal discipline.


Corporation for National & Community Service (2009) Volunteering in America Research Highlights. http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/assets/resources/VolunteeringInAmericaResearchHighlights.pdf (accessed 7 October 2009).

Crowne, Douglas P., & Marlowe, David (1960) A New Scale of Social Desirability Independent of Psychopathology. Journal of Consulting Psychology 24(4), 349-354.

Hall, Michael (2001) Measurement Issues in Surveys of Giving and Volunteering and Strategies Applied in the Design of Canada's National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 30(3), 515-526.

Harteveldt, Henry H., & Hult, Peter (2007) Go Away And Do Good: Voluntourism, The Noble Niche. http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/
(accessed 7 October 2009).

Lovitt, Rob (2008) The Value of Voluntourism. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23262573/ (accessed 7 October 2009). 

Paulhus, Delroy L. (2002) Social Desirable Responding: The Evolution of a Construct. In Braun, Henry I., Jackson, Douglas Northrop, Wiley, David E., & Messick, Samuel (Eds.), The Role of Constructs in Psychological and Educational Measurement (pp.49-69). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Phillips, Derek L., & Clancy, Kevin J. (1972) Some Effects of "Social Desirability" in Survey Studies. The American Journal of Sociology 77(5), 921-940.

Stocke', Volker, & Hunkler, Christian (2007) Measures of Desirability Beliefs and Their Validity as Indicators for Socially Desirable Responding. Field Methods 19(3), 313-336.

Travelocity.com (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009) Travel Forecast Polls. http://svc.travelocity.com/about/newsroom/resources/
(accessed 7 October 2009). 

University of California San Diego Extension (2008) Popularity Grows for 'Voluntourism.' http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/
(accessed 7 October 2009).

University of California San Diego Extension (2009) Study: Interest in Global 'Voluntourism' Continues to Grow.
http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/general/06-09Voluntourism.asp (accessed 7 October 2009).

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