Research Seeks Honest Answers to Sensitive Questions

The study of adult sexual behavior has many important implications. Understanding what predicts certain sexual patterns, such as promiscuity and unprotected sex, can lead to methods to prevent these behaviors. Sexual habits are at the foundation of many social concerns, such as HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence. However, collecting data that accurately reflects people’s behaviors is difficult. In research settings, individuals are interviewed, either in person or remotely, and asked about their sexual behaviors. But despite the best attempts by researchers to obtain authentic answers, results can be biased. People are naturally inclined to give socially desirable answers, even if they are less than truthful. This presents a large problem for professionals because without valid data, they cannot effectively determine cause and effect and develop interventions to decrease negative outcomes.

Martijn G. De Jong, of the Erasmus School of Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, recently tested a new method for surveying sensitive behaviors called the Multigroup Item Randomized Response Theory (MIRRT). De Jong and his colleagues sought to accomplish several goals with this method. First, they wanted to gather accurate data on highly sensitive topics. They also wanted to ensure anonymity, maintain professional integrity, and still be able to disseminate truthful and nontruthful answers. In two separate studies, De Jong evaluated the sexual attitudes and promiscuity of more than 7,000 individuals from more than 15 countries, including the United States. He assessed the data based on personality factors, age, sex, and ethnic origin.

The results revealed that extroverts were not more likely to engage in sexual risk taking than introverts. This finding is in contrast with other research, and although additional results emerged that were highly informative, this particular finding suggests that the MIRRT may allow those who would normally be motivated to answer in conforming ways to actually respond to questions more honestly and without socially desirable bias. De Jong believes that application of the MIRRT, which is easy and cost effective, may be able to help researchers gather more truthful information pertaining to other sensitive behaviors and issues including sexual dysfunction, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, shame, and even disability and deformity. “Taken together, the present results show the potential of MIRRT and call for more research on adult sexual attitudes and behaviors in different sociocultural environments,” he added.

De Jong, Martijn G., Rik Pieters, and Stefan Stremersch. Analysis of sensitive questions across cultures: An application of multigroup item randomized response theory to sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology103.3 (2012): 543-64. Print.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jim F

    Jim F

    October 26th, 2012 at 11:08 AM

    I would have never thought that just because someone had an engaging and outgoing personality that they would automatically be more promiscuous or sleep arouund with more partners. Seriously? There are those who did think that just because you have a good personality this makes you more of an eager sexual partner? Now that’s kinf of painting someone into a box into which they may not beling, kind od unfairly too.

  • Chloe Franklin

    Chloe Franklin

    October 26th, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Why even be a part of a study of you can’t be honest with your answers.

    If you tell untruths in one of these studies, then this doesn’t do anyone any good, right? Sure it might be a little embarassing but there could be something good that will come from your honesty and I would much rather be a part of that than be a part of lies.

  • D.S


    October 26th, 2012 at 11:21 PM

    I agree that surveys and studies need to ensure the anonymity of the participants when it comes to topics with regard to their sex lives. And although risky sexual behavior is only increasing,the real solution is to educate the people from a young age. So when they do become adults and engage in sexual activity they know what they are doing and they ensure they are indulging in safe sex.

    Teaching adults or those that are already used to risky behaviors can be tough but it is not so when we reach the grassroots.

  • zane


    October 27th, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    Have to maintain that anonymous nature to get the most honesty out of people

    No one really wants to air all of their dirty laundry unless they are cast members on Jersey Shore

    Hey that’s a thought- go to all of the reality trash on TV and you will probably get a lot more honesty about sex than you ever bargained for

  • tayler


    October 27th, 2012 at 9:27 AM

    never easy to let out everything that you hold so close to you…most cope would not be comfortable.I think taking the online route would be the best way for surveys on such issues…the participants have complete anonymity and do not have to worry about being judged.They can even share comments and discuss anonymously which actually gives researchers even more data.So they should look at the online model and because the reach is limitless…it can end up being economical too.

  • Kristy


    October 27th, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    Being confident and outgoing does not make you promiscuous.It has to be one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard and just sounds like something that could only come from someone jealous of all the extroverts out there for their confidence.

  • Nan


    October 28th, 2012 at 4:58 AM

    I would not even participate in a study like this unless it was in a way that no one ever knew my name

    What if someone I knew got hold of the information?

    I would be mortified

  • Fletcher


    October 28th, 2012 at 5:17 AM

    Why are people so hung up about giving out the right answers?Its not like the survey person is gonna judge you!People give out there location info to their phone carriers 24X7 and will happily give out their details for a free gift online.But they cannot maintain the same level of openness and honesty when it comes to helping a study!Just wow!

  • felix


    October 28th, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    there is a solution to get people to be truthful and honest – advertising! yes, it does work because people always rush for what the adverts say. put the entire process online and provide the participants with some incentives if they complete the survey.that way people will be less bothered about them revealing everything correctly and think more of the incentive. At least this marketing tactic will work for something good.

  • LL


    October 28th, 2012 at 11:23 PM

    we should have some way of judging whether their answers are true. maybe they could use questions that are varied a little but have the same meaning and see the responses of the participants. if the person is not truthful the answers would vary.

  • Jack N

    Jack N

    October 29th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    Isn’t this what a lot of research is about though, seeking honest answers to sensitive questions? I know that not all subjects are quite as sensitive as sex and your sexual habits, but depending on whom you ask there could be some sensitivity with any given topic. But the aversion to telling the truth can’t stop the studies, you know? It is importnat that we continue to look at society and our ever evolving nature and shifts, and in some ways hope that this helps us to better understand one another and learn to love one another just a little bit more.



    October 29th, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Although an encouraging step, gathering the right data in a study is not an easy task. People could say the wrong things, there is just no way to find out the truth in their answers. We cannot interrogate them but can only request for honest answers. Only if they realize that they have nothing to lose by giving out the right answers and that in fact they will be helping the medical community by doing so is there a chance of them coming forward with truthful answers.

  • nick


    October 29th, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    hey I would be comfortable talking about all that with someone in person either! now put the system online and maybe I will be honey and give you accurate findings…!

  • nick


    October 29th, 2012 at 11:41 PM

    I meant I wouldn’t reveal in person. And honey=honest.

    Blame the tiny keyboards on cellphones ;)

  • kerrie adams

    kerrie adams

    October 30th, 2012 at 4:34 AM

    not always easy to answer honestly in such surveys.and I think the solution would lie in being able to weed out the wrong response from the lot because people are always going to try to hide things about them.if we could maybe have some form of assessment wherein the person’s body language is monitored to gauge whether the answer is an honest one,maybe that would help.

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