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You can be too thin (but not too tall): social desirability bias in self-reports of weight and height


  • Burke, Mary A.

    () (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)

  • Carman, Katherine Grace

    () (RAND Corporation)


Previous studies of survey data for the United States and other countries find that on average women tend to understate their body weight, while on average both men and women overstate their height. Social norms have been posited as a potential explanation for misreporting of weight and height, but researchers disagree on the validity of that explanation. This paper is the first to present a theoretical model of self-reporting behavior for weight and height that explicitly incorporates social desirability bias. The model generates testable implications that can be contrasted with predictions based on alternative explanations for self-reporting errors. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1990–2010, we find that self-reporting patterns for both weight and body mass index (BMI) offer robust evidence of social desirability bias, such that reports are biased (from both sides) towards social norms. The BMI norm inferred for women lies squarely within the range considered “healthy” by public health officials, while the BMI norm inferred for men lies just above this healthy range. Lack of awareness of one’s current body weight may explain the presence of large (negative) self-reporting errors among those with very high values of examined weight, but the evidence of social desirability bias is robust to this alternative explanation over most of the weight distribution. Social desirability bias in self-reporting of height is observed primarily among those of below-average height and no clear height norms are discernible. The framework also helps to explain previous findings that the degree of self-reporting bias in weight depends on the survey mode.

Suggested Citation

  • Burke, Mary A. & Carman, Katherine Grace, 2016. "You can be too thin (but not too tall): social desirability bias in self-reports of weight and height," Working Papers 16-15, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
  • Handle: RePEc:fip:fedbwp:16-15

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Cawley, John & Maclean, Johanna Catherine & Hammer, Mette & Wintfeld, Neil, 2015. "Reporting error in weight and its implications for bias in economic models," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 19(C), pages 27-44.
    2. Ivar Krumpal, 2013. "Determinants of social desirability bias in sensitive surveys: a literature review," Quality & Quantity: International Journal of Methodology, Springer, vol. 47(4), pages 2025-2047, June.
    3. Courtemanche, Charles & Pinkston, Joshua C. & Stewart, Jay, 2015. "Adjusting body mass for measurement error with invalid validation data," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 19(C), pages 275-293.
    4. Gil, Joan & Mora, Toni, 2011. "The determinants of misreporting weight and height: The role of social norms," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 9(1), pages 78-91, January.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • I12 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Health Behavior
    • I18 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Government Policy; Regulation; Public Health

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