KeywordsEvolutionary Psychology Mate Preference Sexual Fantasy Methodological Tool Disgust Sensitivity
Self-reports are data that are sourced from written or verbal representation of individuals’ cognitions, emotions, attitudes, experiences, behavioral intentions, and/or beliefs about the self.
Self-reports have been widely used in evolutionary psychology research targeting many domains (e.g., mate preference, tactics of deception, cooperation, and helping). While researchers using self-reports have been able to collect and examine data that would otherwise be unobtainable (e.g., sexual fantasies), the use of self-reports in evolutionary psychology has been challenged and criticized (see Shields and Steinke 2003). Although there are valid criticisms of the self-report method, such as the potential for respondents to provide deceptive answers or to have their answers be influenced by social desirability concerns, there is strong evidence to support the use of self-reports as a valid methodological tool in evolutionary psychology research (Allen and Yen 2001; Crocker and Algina 1986; Simpson and Campbell 2005). The following examines the uses, strengths, and criticisms of self-reports in evolutionary psychology research and offers suggestions for using self-reports in evolutionary psychology research effectively.
The Value of Self-Reports in Evolutionary Psychology
Self-reports exist in various forms, from verbal and written responses to open-ended questions, to numeric responses that indicate individuals’ levels of agreement with statements that characterize a latent construct. As such, self-reports intend to measure what individuals believe to be true about themselves, their behavior, and their experiences. The greatest contribution to the literature that self-reports can make then is the obtainment of data (e.g., preferences, motivations, self-perceptions, reports of past behavior) that could not otherwise be obtained, or not as easily obtained, through other research methods. Thus, the self-report method is especially useful to evolutionary psychology research which often focuses on topics (e.g., mate preferences, violence against spouses) that, researched in any other way, could be deemed inappropriate, unethical, and/or overly intrusive.
Self-report research has been prevalent in evolutionary psychology and has in many ways provided important bases of knowledge for the field. Important, and even seminal, research using self-reports has tested evolutionary hypotheses pertaining to human mate preferences (e.g., Buss 1989), mate retention (e.g., Buss 1988), mating desires (e.g., Regan and Dreyer 1999), tactics of deception (e.g., Tooke and Camire 1991), violence against spouses (e.g., Buss and Shackelford 1997), strategies for elevating your status within a social hierarchy (e.g., Cummins 2005), familial helping (e.g., Burnstein et al. 1994), and many other relevant and important evolutionary psychology research topics (see Buss 2015 for a comprehensive review). This research employing self-report measures has been heavily cited, creating important foundations for testing further evolutionary psychology hypotheses to expand the understanding of human cognition and behavior.
One of the major strengths of self-report research is that it is a time- and cost-effective method for doing research, reducing the necessary expenses in time, money, and labor to conduct. Self-reports often do not come with the drawbacks of other research methods that may be more expensive, laborious, and obtrusive (e.g., studies employing behavioral observations of individual participants). When beginning a new research program or exploring a new research question, it may be unwise to choose other, more arduous research methods because these efforts may be unfruitful and the invested resources (e.g., time, money) may then be wasted. Thus, self-reports are a practical methodological tool and a sensible first step in a research program.
One particular strength is the predictive power of self-report measures. Self-reported emotions and beliefs have been shown to predict important attitudes and behavior in testing hypotheses derived from evolutionary psychology. For example, using a sociofunctional theory of intergroup prejudice, researchers have used self-reported perceptions of the specific threats posed by different groups to predict specific emotional profiles evoked by these groups (Cottrell and Neuberg 2005), thus demonstrating that there may be many different functionally relevant kinds of prejudices as opposed to one generalized prejudice. Similarly, researchers have used self-report measures to test hypotheses about the adaptive functions of disgust sensitivity and their relationship to fundamental moral values (e.g., van Leeuwen et al. 2016) and voting behavior (Inbar et al. 2012). As another example, self-reports have also been successfully used to predict cost-inflicting mate retention behaviors. Men’s partner-directed insults were found to be related to women’s reports of their partners’ mate value, such that women’s decreased assessments of their male partners’ mate value were associated with more frequent insults from their partners (Miner et al. 2009a, b). These are but a few prominent examples of the value of self-report measures in conducting research in evolutionary psychology.
An additional benefit of self-report methods is that they can be designed to measure opinions or preferences that allude even the participants’ own conscious knowledge, for instance, when the participants may not be aware of, or able to explain, how the variables at play influence their perceptions and behaviors. For example, male participants may not be able to articulate, or even be consciously aware of, their preferences for female romantic partners as a function of the women’s waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). However, by systematically manipulating the size of a woman’s figure using line drawings, Singh (1993) was able to conclude that women’s distribution of body fat (i.e., WHR) played a critical role in men’s judgment of females as healthy and attractive. Similarly, if asking participants whether or not they prefer unique or average faces, participants are likely to mistakenly report they prefer unique faces. This may at first appear to be a limitation of the self-report method. However, by designing self-report methods in which participants can rate their preferences for faces that are manipulated or chosen based on key features, such as their representing a composite “average” face of varying numbers of individual faces (e.g., Grammer and Thornhill 1994; Jones 1996), researchers can gather important data about individuals’ preferences, even when the factors that influence these preferences may be outside of the participants’ own conscious awareness.
Self-reports have thus far played an important role in building the foundation of many psychological fields, including the field of evolutionary psychology. Innovative researchers have used creative methods in which to test their hypotheses and make significant contributions to the knowledge bases of their fields. It should be noted that the above strengths are in no way an exhaustive list of the strengths of self-report methods; however, these strengths do provide evidence that self-reports are a versatile methodological tool that researchers may adapt to fit their needs in the pursuit of important research objectives.
Criticisms and Limitations of Self-Report Methods
The uses of self-reports, particularly with college student populations, have been criticized and challenged in the literature (see Shields and Steinke 2003; Silvers 2011). One particular limitation noted among these criticisms is that participants may be deceptive when reporting their attitudes, preferences, and behaviors. This criticism is not necessarily specific to evolutionary psychology, but the topics examined in evolutionary psychology research may make this a particularly important concern. Evolutionary psychology often examines sensitive topics (e.g., extramarital affairs, unusual sexual fantasies), and thus participants may be especially hesitant to report thoughts or experiences they fear will result in negative judgment by others. Alternatively, participants may not be reporting the information “truthfully” because they have limited self-knowledge or because they themselves have been deceived by their own lies (Paulhus 1988). Thus, the issues of self- or other-focused deception are particularly worrying limitations of the self-report method.
Another criticism leveled at self-report methods is that they are a fallible source of data because seemingly insignificant variations in the wording, format, or content of the items or questions to which participants respond may have significant unintended effects on how participants respond (Schwarz 1999). To illustrate this point, the self-report research that has examined individuals’ responses to infidelity has yielded contradictory results. Early work found sex differences that supported the jealousy as a specific innate module (JSIM) hypotheses through hypothetical forced choice self-reports (Buss et al. 1992). However, alternative methods, such as using rating scales or self-reports of individuals’ actual experiences, revealed evidence that was contrary to the JSIM (see Harris 2003 for a comprehensive review). Again, while this is not a concern unique to research conducted only in evolutionary psychology, it is a concern that evolutionary psychology researchers must consider when employing self-report measures.
Perhaps the biggest limitation that self-reports must overcome is that self-report measures are not direct or exact records of an individual’s actual behavior. As such, because self-report data are dependent on individuals’ perceptions and interpretations of events, collected data may be subject to bias. Further, various cultural norms or stereotypes may taint the data. And because human memory is fallible and often unreliable, researchers must be careful when asking questions that pertain to the past frequency of behaviors or to the recollection of past experiences.
As discussed above, data collected by self-report measures may also be unreliable due to participants’ desire to be viewed as favorable. For instance, participants may knowingly report their preferences dishonestly or be motivated to exaggerate their experiences (e.g., embellished accounts of sexual experiences), especially when they believe that their responses may be publically evaluated. Social desirability concerns (Crowne and Marlowe 1960; Paulhus 1988) have long been a problem in self-report data. Researchers must be aware of this issue and take reasonable steps to reduce their participants’ desires to respond to self-report measures in ways that enhance their own social impressions, such as by ensuring the anonymity and confidentiality of the participants’ responses.
Addressing the Limitations of Self-Report Methods
While the criticisms of self-reports discussed above are valid, it is important to remember that all research methods are imperfect. All research methods bring with them some degree of measurement error in their failure to completely and accurately assess the constructs they operationally define. Researchers must be cognizant of the limitations of the research methods they employ and make informed decisions about designs and procedures. Further, although it may be impossible to eliminate measurement error, researchers may implement methods that reduce it. A preferable method for the reduction of measurement error in self-reports is triangulation (Buss 2015; Kenrick and Keefe 1992). By pairing self-reports with a multi-method, multi-measure approach, researchers can obtain more robust and ideally converging results, providing them with more confidence in their conclusions.
Because seemingly trivial variations in the wording or format of self-report materials can strongly influence participants’ answers (Schwarz 1999), researchers should take particular care in wording their self-report measures. Making sure that the participants’ understanding of the items or questions match what the researchers intend is crucial to the interpretation of their results. Thus, researchers are encouraged to pilot test their materials (see Schwarz and Sudman 1996) to assess their reliability and validity before large amounts of data are collected.
Finally, with new technological advances, researchers can collect large amounts of data while eliminating various sources of measurement error (Miller 2012). For example, to help reduce problems associated with memory or lack of self-knowledge, researchers may employ text messaging as a method in order to receive immediate, or near-immediate, data that do not rely on the individual to recall past events or count the frequency of past behaviors. Furthermore, with the now ubiquitous use of smartphones, researchers can create interactive surveys and experiments to collect data from real-world behaviors, experiences, and emotions in real time, rather than later in a lab room (Miller 2012).
All research methods have strengths and limitations. When designing studies, researchers should be aware of the particular, potential limitations of each research method and take the necessary steps in reducing measurement error and avoiding unnecessary pitfalls. The criticisms associated with self-report measures are real; however, researchers aware of these criticisms may still use self-report methods in their research to obtain reliable and valid results. In the absence of infinite resources, self-reports are valuable, practical, and cost-effective measurement tools that can be employed by researchers in their investigations of fascinating research questions in evolutionary psychology.
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