Measuring Social Desirability and Defensiveness with Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale

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Need for approval is defined as reliance on the evaluative judgments of others as a guide to one’s own behavior. Defensiveness is failure to ascribe to himself characteristics of a generally valid but socially unacceptable nature. Need for approval and defensiveness have been studied together in numerous studies since the development of Marlow-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (MCSDS). The present paper reviews existing literature on need for approval and defensiveness and the implications for people who score high on MCSDS. The existing literature found high level of defensiveness in people who are high in need for approval. However, what constitutes the distinction and the overlap between the two constructs needs further examination since some degree of overlap as well as a similar degree of difference have been found, but not examined. This paper also encourages the use of objective, and quantitative measures as well as efforts to unify measurement of defensiveness as the existing literature has weaknesses in these areas.

The Relationship between Need for Approval and Defensiveness and the Implications for People High in Need for Approval

The present paper summarizes important findings on need for approval and defensiveness, draws implications for those who are high in need for approval, and at last, suggests direction for future studies on the matter.

The History and Development of Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale

     The Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (MCSDS) was originally developed to measure social desirability. Social desirability is defined as an individual’s need to “obtain approval by responding in a culturally appropriate and acceptable manner” (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960, p. 353). Before the MCSDS was developed, social desirability was measure by Edwards Social Desirability Scale (ESDS). A problem with the ESDS was that there was a high correlation between the ESDS and the scales of Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The high correlation between the two scales suggested that the ESDS is a measure of psychopathology rather than social desirability. Therefore, to not confound social desirability with psychopathology, the MCSDS was developed with non-MMPI items. The MCSDS excludes any items that are pathology-relevant or indicative of abnormalcy.

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 The MCSDS is comprised of two types of items: one describing a characteristic or behavior socially desirable but untrue of most people (e.g., “I never hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble”) and the other describing a characteristic or behavior socially undesirable but true of most people (e.g, “There have been occasions when I took advantage of someone.”). When the initial 47-item scale was administered to 76 students, only 33 items were found to cause difference between high scorers and low scorers. The final version of the MCSDS included only these 33 items, of which 18 were the desirable (“true”) items and 15 were undesirable (“untrue”) items. Although there is a moderate correlation between MCSDS and ESDS (r = 0.35), the authors reported that the correlation between MCSDS and MMPI is markedly lower than that between ESDS and MMPI scales, and thus claimed that they achieved their goal of coming up with a measure for non-pathological needs for approval.

 After reporting the development of the MCSDS in 1960, Marlowe and Crowne examined what high scores on the scale mean in different contexts. They studied the variable in relation to conformity, persuasibility, and defensiveness. Four years later, they reported that people who score high in MCSDS are highly dependent on the judgments of others and are expected to be more conforming, persuasible, and amenable to social influence (Crowne & Marlowe, 1964). The researchers conceptualized the variable being measured with MCSDS as need for approval (NA) and defined it as “reliance on the evaluative judgments of others as a guide to one’s own behavior” (p. 14).

 Initially, Crowne and Marlowe (1964) suggested that high-scorers on MCSDS would have low self-esteem as they found that people high in NA are easily persuasible. Drawing from Hovland and Janis’ (1959) argument that highly persuasive people have low self-esteem, they began to speculate that approval dependence is related to protecting vulnerable self-image. Researchers after Crowne and Marlowe continued to find high defensiveness in people high in need for approval.

Measuring Social Desirability with MCSDS

Despite Marlowe and Crowne’s claim (1964) that a score on MCSDS reflects an individual’s need for approval, an enduring trait that guide people’s behavior across situations, rather than social desirability, a mere tendency to report oneself more favorably on psychometric measures, MCSDS has been used more widely and frequently as a social desirability measure. Social Science Citation for the 1990s alone found 729 references to the use of original MCSDS (Barger, 2002). Most of the usage was to statistically correct the potential response bias. The MCSDS has also been used as a measure of psychological defensiveness, but this application was not as widespread compared to the social desirability applications. 

McCrae and Costa are one of the early researchers to argue against the common practice of using social desirability (SD) score to adjust scores on personality measures (1983). They pointed out that individuals who are actually high in socially desirable traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness and happen to have a high score on MCSDS could be unfairly penalized by an arbitrary correction according to their MCSDS score. They questioned whether individuals who answer “yes” to highly unlikely but socially desirable items and “no” to highly likely but socially undesirable items are actually exhibiting socially desirable characteristics rather than trying to manipulate their scores on personality measures. They administered Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness (NEO) Inventory, a personality measure, and MCSDS to 552 participants. Then they compared participants’ self-reports of personality with ratings from their spouse, an unbiased, objective measure not contaminated by an individual’s level of social desirability. They found that the correlation between one’s self-report and spousal report do not increase when correcting for SD. Rather, the validity of personality measures decrease when correcting for SD. Therefore, their original hypothesis that SD score reflect one’s actual characteristics rather than faking motives was confirmed. As a result, they recommended not using SD measures to capture faking on personality measures. 

Ones, Vieswesvaran and Reiss’ meta-analysis suggested a view in congruent with McCrae and Costa’s (1996). They aggregated studies reporting information allowing a computation of correlation between measures of SD and individual difference measures including the Big Five for their meta-analysis. From over 700 studies, they collected 2,282 coefficients to come up with a personality scale reliability artifact distribution and 119 coefficients for an SD counterpart. From these results of meta-analytic cumulation, they estimated population correlation. 

The results demonstrate that SD scales are correlated with personality measures. The strongest estimated population correlation between SD and the Big Five existed between SD and emotional stability, which was .37 (K = 467). The second strongest correlation was .20 (K = 239), between conscientiousness and SD. More importantly, the authors found a similar pattern of relationships between SD scales and others’ ratings of the Big Five dimensions of personality. The estimated population correlation between SD scales and the observer ratings of stability is .18 (K = 14); the correlation between those and the observer ratings of conscientiousness was .13. (K = 27) Taken together, the results indicate that SD scores reflect actual individual differences in people’s personality. One, Vieswesvaran and Reiss’ impactful meta-analysis showed that McCrae and Costa’s findings are generalizable to the entire population. To this day, the results of Ones’ meta-analysis stands as there was no other meta-analysis similar in scale to refute their claims. However, there are also several minor weaknesses to their findings: one is that as more than twenty years have passed since their study, the study does not include more recent findings and changes in population level of personality factors. 

A more recent study showed lack of correlation between scores on MCSDS and socially undesirable behaviors (Johnson et al., 2012). Johnson and colleagues wanted to examine the validity of the MCSDS as a measure of deceptive behavior in survey reporting of cocaine use. They hypothesized that scores on MCSDS short form would be positively related with deception. They employed biological assessments to test the accuracy of participants’ self drug-reporting. They gathered information from 553 respondents in Chicago. The results showed that there was no significant difference in reporting behaviors between high and low MCSDS scorers. The scores on MCSDS were not predictive of under-reporting as well as true behavior. Findings by Johnson and colleagues do not accord with the findings by McCrae and Costa. A replication of this study with bigger samples and inclusion of broader types of sensitive behaviors rather than just one (e.g. cocaine use) may yield different results. The following sections included studies employing MCSDS as a measurement of need for approval and examine the relationship between need for approval and defensiveness.

Need for Approval and Defensiveness

Strickland and Crowne (1963) conducted one of the early studies to discover high level of defensiveness in the people high in NA. The participant groups were 85 dyads of patients and therapists. The patients included both males and females, and the median age was 33.7. The patients first took the MCSDS at varying times, and a nine-point scale to rate one’s own improvement within three months of termination of therapy. The therapists completed Seeman Case Rating Scale at varying times while the patient was still in therapy. The scale included, among others, the therapist’s estimate of the patient’s attitude toward her during therapy, the therapist’s attitude toward the patient, and the degree of personal integration versus defensiveness of the patient. The therapists also completed the closing summaries of treatment on a five-point scale (ranging from (1) optimal improvement and mutual agreement on termination to (5) termination without the therapist’s agreement and no improvement).

Correlations were computed between the Seeman scale and the scores on MCSDS, the number of hours of therapy, and the index of social class. The results showed that the patients high in need for approval terminate therapy much earlier than those lower in need for approval. They are perceived by their therapists as being defensive, less likable, and less satisfied with the progress of therapy, and less improved. Specifically, the correlation coefficient between the scores on MCSD scale and the therapists’ reportings of defensiveness was -.69.

The results of this study have important clinical implications for people high in NA. The results imply that people who are high in NA, regardless of their diagnosis, go through much more difficulty when they are in therapy, and are less likely to improve than people who are low in NA. Therapists and patients should not only pay attention to the specific diagnosis, but also to the level of NA in so that both parties can have increased awareness on this matter and necessary guide or precautions should be made available.

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A few years after Strickland and Crowne (1969), Lefcourt (1969) employed projective test and used behavior measures of defensiveness during the test. First, participants were divided into high and low groups according to their scores on the MCSDS. Secondly, they were randomly assigned to either control condition or mental illness (MI) condition in which situational threat was present. Lefcourt hypothesized that people high in need for approval would be more defensive in the MI condition because they react more defensively to situational threats.

The results showed that need for approval is a moderator when situational threat is a predictor and defensiveness is an outcome. People low in need for approval exhibited no difference in the level of defensiveness between the two conditions. People high in NA changed their behavior drastically depending on the presence of the threat. High NA participants in control group were less defensive than low NA participants in the same group. High NA participants in the threat condition were more defensive than their counterpart. The results of this study imply vulnerability to situational threats for people high in need for approval. Future studies should investigate what this vulnerability means to people high in NA. It should be scrutinized whether defensive behavior or defensiveness exhibited by people high in NA actually serve to buffer or magnify affective impact of threatening situations for them, when compared to people low in NA.

Need for Approval, Self-esteem, and Defensiveness

Lobel and Teiber (1994) conducted an experiment to examine how people with different levels of need for approval and self-esteem react to success and failure. They first used Self-Rating Scale (Fleming & Courtney, 1984) to measure SE and MCSDS for need for approval. In a follow-up session, the participants were divided into either success or failure conditions. After they each completed a 20-item analogies test, which did not have clear answers, those in the success condition were told that they did really well on the test and those in the failure condition were told they did terribly. Next, right before another round of testing was to begin, a question each was asked on their perception on ideal performance (ideally, how many you would like to get right), perceived ability (how many do you think you have the capacity to get right), and prediction for actual performance (how many do you think you will actually get right). The experiment ended after participants answered these questions. The participants’ scores were categorized into three groups: high SE and high NA (HH group), high SE and low NA (HL group), low SE (L group).

 The results revealed that people in HH group showed similar cognitive patterns as the people in L group (Lobel & Teiber, 1994). The L group and the HH group expressed greater willingness to succeed after success than after failure. While the HH group and L showed similar patterns in answers, the difference of the answers between success and failure conditions was starkly greater for the HH group. On the other hand, HL group did not react differently to success and failure. The authors interpret this decrease in willingness in high NA people to success after failure as “defensiveness”, and suggested the idea that people with high SE and high NA actually having “defensive” self-esteem. Although more research is necessary to delineate the relationship between NA and SE, it is interesting to see that a person’s level of NA may serve as a variable to distinguish between “authentic” high SE, and pretentious high SE.

All three studies mentioned above present important and interesting findings regarding the relationship between NA and defensiveness; they all found that relatively higher level of defensiveness exists in people high in NA than people with low NA. However, Strickland and Crowne (1963) and Lefcourt (1969)  use different measures of defensiveness, Lobel & Teiber (1994) only relates defensiveness and NA in their interpretation, and all three studies did not have a clear, common definition of defensiveness. The fact that the authors subjectively interpreted different phenomenon (or in Strickland and Crowne’s case, relied on therapists’ subjective construal) as behaviors exhibiting “defensiveness” is a drawback of these studies because different behaviors carry different weights of defensiveness (i.e. different validity). It is impossible to conclude from these findings, quantitatively, how much relationship there exists between NA and defensiveness. It may be helpful to refer to other literature that define what defensiveness is.

The Construct Defensiveness

A commonly used definition of defensiveness in the literature is “failure to ascribe to himself characteristics of a generally valid but socially unacceptable nature” (Page & Markowitz, 1955). Strikingly, what we can notice from definition of defensiveness is that it almost exactly matches the description of “untrue” items in MCSDS. Then arises a question whether the difference between need for approval and defensiveness is merely what is captured by “true” items in MCSDS. In other words, need for approval seems to be a bigger term that includes people’s tendency to attribute highly unlikely but socially desirable qualities to themselves, in addition to their level of defensiveness.

The correlation between the two variables is a starting point to test whether the above proposition is true. Ramanaiah and colleagues (1977) found the strength of the relationship between the two by measuring the correlation between scores on the MCSDS and those on the K scale, which is a most commonly measure of defensiveness. Their motive was to see how two types of questions (“true” and “untrue”) in MCSDS are differentially correlated with the three scales in MMPI. The three scales were Lie Scale, K scale, and Repression-Sensitization Scale. The Lie Scale, which measures the tendency to fake good impression, was used as a model for developing MCSDS. The K scale measures personal defensiveness and the R-S scale measures a person’s chronic defense mode. Ramanaiah and colleagues first administered the MCSDS to 189 undergraduate students. Multiple-group factor analysis of the answers confirmed that there exists two components of the scale: one is attribution (tendency to attribute socially desirable characteristics to oneself) and the other is denial (tendency to deny undesirable characteristics). The second part of the study involved 108 undergraduate students and administering the four scales to them. The study found that the untrue items correlated strongly with the K scale (r = 0.57), and the R-S scale (r = -0.59).

It is not surprising that the K scale is strongly correlated with “untrue” items in MCSDS. It is actually puzzling that the correlation is not stronger, but the lack of correlation could be due to psychopathological content in the K scale. For future studies, it would be worthwhile to investigate what distinguishes NA from defensiveness while also searching for the similarities between the two.


  • Barger, S. D. (2002). The Marlowe-Crowne affair: Short forms, psychometric structure, and social desirability. Journal of personality assessment79(2), 286-305.
  • Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1960). A new scale of social desirability independent of psychopathology. Journal of consulting psychology, 24(4), 349.
  • Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1964). The approval motive: Studies in evaluative dependence. New York: Wiley.
  • Lefcourt, H. M. (1969). Need for approval and threatened negative evaluation as determinants of expressiveness in a projective test. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 33(1), 96.
  • Lobel, T. E., & Teiber, A. (1994). Effects of self-esteem and need for approval on affective and cognitive reactions: Defensive and true self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 16(2), 315-321.
  • McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1983). Social desirability scales: More substance than style. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology51(6), 882.
  • Ones, D. S., Viswesvaran, C., & Reiss, A. D. (1996). Role of social desirability in personality testing for personnel selection: The red herring. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(6), 660-679. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.81.6.660
  • Ramanaiah, N. V., Schill, T., & Leung, L. S. (1977). A test of the hypothesis about the two-dimensional nature of the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 11(2), 251-259.
  • Strickland, B. R., & Crowne, D. P. (1963). Need for approval and the premature termination of psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 27(2), 95.

Appendix A

During Spring 2018, I worked as a research assistant under Professor Mark Snyder and Lauren Clatch in Snyder Lab. The title of the research was ‘Archival Study of Law Student Pro Bono Services’, which is a sub-study of ‘Legal Pro Bono Services: Volunteerism or Work? Does the Difference between Pro Bono and Volunteerism Change Antecedents and Consequences?’. The purpose of this study was to determine how similar pro bono is to volunteering and to see which psychological factors predict more involvement in providing pro bono services. We were doing an archival study using a data set by Deborah Schmedemann. Schmedemann administered sets of survey to 420 recent graduates of William Mitchell College of Law. Survey questions and the study procedure were detailed in her Technical Report.

This was my first time joining an archival study and being a part of active discussion for planned analyses. There was a lot of implicit knowledge (e.g. life of a graduate student) I gained by witnessing lab meetings and how the research progresses, but the declarative knowledge part can be divided primarily into three: knowledge on the research topic and data set in question, knowledge on excel and SPSS, and knowledge on statistical concepts. Also, I read literature on volunteerism and learned how volunteerism is defined and conceptualized in the existing literature. I learned about Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI), which measures the strength of different kinds of motivations (e.g. self-enhancement) for volunteering, and about AEC framework that define three stages of volunteerism: Antecedent, Experience, and Consequence.

Appendix B

My instructor and the peer reviewer had commonly pointed out two main weaknesses in the initial draft. First is the transition between subsections. They said that my subsections are clearly and logically organized, yet there are no transitions between them. Second is following the APA style and fixing several grammatical or spelling errors. I fixed all the APA style errors and grammatical errors pointed out by them. A major revision was adding a section called “Measuring Social Desirability with MCSDS”. Although my attempt was to expand the scope of the paper, I could not add enough transitions to make the flow natural or include concluding remarks to summarize my review. The transition still remains as the major weakness of the paper.

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