Time Pressure and Social Norms

Responding quickly makes you stick with what is expected of you.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

CC0 by Wouterhagens via Wikimedia Commons
Source: CC0 by Wouterhagens via Wikimedia Commons

In life, there is what you are supposed to do and what you actually do. Sometimes, those are the same things. You know that you are supposed to study hard in school, give money to charity, help others, and stay informed about key political matters. You might do some of them (like study or give to charity), but not others (like giving your time to help others or keeping up with political events).

If you’re asked by other people which activities you engage in, you also feel a pull to respond in a way that makes you look more virtuous than you actually are. To the extent that you present yourself in a more favorable way than you deserve, you are engaging in what psychologists call socially desirable responding.

One reason why this tendency is important is that it affects the answers people give to survey questions. To the extent that a person is prone to give a socially desirable response, the data they provide on a survey will be biased away from their actual behavior. As a result, survey researchers often include a “lie scale” in which they ask several questions with a clear socially desirable response (like “I’m always willing to admit when I make a mistake”) to root out people who give the socially desirable answer rather than the one that reflects their actual beliefs and behavior. Someone who gives too many socially desirable responses is probably not telling the truth about themselves in the survey.

Psychologists have also been interested in factors that lead people to make socially desirable responses. A paper by John Protzko, Claire Zedelius, and Jonathan Schooler in the November 2019 issue of Psychological Science explores the relationship between time pressure and giving the socially desirable response on a survey.

In one study, they asked 1,500 participants to complete a survey with 10 questions that had clear socially desirable answers. Each question required a yes or no answer. Participants either had to respond quickly (within 11 seconds for each answer) or slowly (taking more than 11 seconds for each answer). Overall, participants who had to respond quickly gave significantly more “yes” answers to the questions than did those who could respond slowly.

Why does speed increase socially desirable responding?

In another study, participants responded to this scale with or without time pressure. In addition, they filled out a scale that measures whether they believe that they should live in accordance with their own values and beliefs. Evidence suggests that most people see themselves as fundamentally good people (self-concept), so when people believe that they should live in accordance with themselves, they are more likely to give socially desirable responses than when they don’t.

This study replicated the finding that time pressure increases socially desirable responding. The interesting finding is that when people respond quickly, they are prone to give the socially desirable response regardless of their score on the scale measuring whether they should live authentically. When they respond slowly, though, they are only more likely to give socially desirable responses if they believe that they should live authentically.

This pattern suggests an interesting interpretation of the findings.

Basically, everyone knows what society expects of them. When you respond quickly, you default to doing what other people expect of you. When you have time to think, then you can choose to respond in a way that fits with who you are.

The reason this pattern is interesting is that we often have to react quickly in social situations. To help us get along with other people, those quick reactions are focused on saying and doing the things that are likely to make it easier for us to be liked by other people. Only when we have time to react slowly do we like to buck the trend of what other people expect.

This work suggests that if you are in a social group that is doing something you would like to avoid, then you need to find a way to slow your actions down to say and do things that are desirable for you—even if they go against the grain of the rest of society.