- Self-Report Data
Given the relative ease and low cost with which they are gathered, self-report data have become the predominant way of measuring and describing the prevalence of many behaviors, including alcohol consumption and tobacco use.
However, the validity of self-report data is sometimes called into question. Do self-reports provide accurate data? A review of the literature
reveals that, generally speaking, they do.
(Babor et al., 2000; Patrick et al., 1994; Frier et al., 1991; Midanik,
1988; Cooper et al., 1981).
It has been noted that much of the skepticism about the accuracy of self-reports—especially in regard to alcohol consumption—stems from the identification
of the denial of problem drinking as key feature of alcoholism (Babor
and Del Boca, 1992). Babor and Del Boca (1992, p.5) have summarized
many of the factors that can cause variability in the accuracy of
self-reports; they include:
sensitivity of the information sought (e.g. demographic vs arrest
The specificity of the validation criteria (e.g., archival records,
breath alcohol readings, urine tests, informant's reports)
The personal characteristics of the respondents (e.g., sober vs
The time window of the report (e.g., lifetime vs recent) and
The demand characteristics of the task situation (e.g., clinical
interview vs research evaluation)."
As Midanik has argued (Midanik,
1989), the question that needs to
be addressed is not "are self-reports…valid," but
rather "under what conditions do self-reports vary? "
A recent review of the empirical literature of adolescent self-reports essentially arrives at the same conclusion (Brener, Billy, and Grady, 2003). This review assessed the cognitive and situational factors that may affect the validity of adolescents' self-reports of six different health-risk behaviors. Cognitive factors can compromise validity and yield inaccurate data as a result of things such as respondents' poor comprehension or faulty recall, whereas situational factors can compromise validity as a result of things such as the method of survey administration (e.g., confidential vs. anonymous) or social desirability bias. As the Brener et al. review makes clear, cognitive and situational factors do not affect the validity of each type of self-reported behavior equally. For example, unless they are athletes, youngsters are not in general very sensitive about behaviors related to physical activity. Given that, one would expect situational factors to have a neglible impact on self-reported data about such activities. By contrast, tobacco use engenders a good deal of social disapproval and is, moreover, illicit for those under 18 years of age. Thus, an interviewer-administered questionnaire (IAD) about adolescent physical activity is less likely to yield inaccurate self-report data than an IAD about adolescent tobacco use. Given that the effective assessment of health-risk behaviors necessitates the continued use of self-report data, Brener et al. conclude that "researchers should familiarize themselves with the threats to validity inherent in this type of assessment and design research that minimizes these threats as much as possible (op. cit., 436)."
Babor, T.F., Steinberg, K., Anton, R., and
Del Boca, F. Talk is cheap: measuring drinking outcomes in
clinical trials. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 2000; 61(1):55-63.
Babor, T.F. and Del Boca, F.K. Just
the facts: enhancing measurements of alcohol consumption using self-report
methods. In: Litten, R. and Allen, J. (Eds.) Measuring Alcohol Consumption.
Totawa, NJ: Humana Press, 1992.
Brener, N.D., Billy, J.O., Grady, W.R. Assessment of factors affecting the validity of self-reported health-risk behavior among adolescents: evidence from the scientific literature. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2003, 33:436-457.
Cooper, A.M., Sobell, M.B., Sobell, L.C.,
Maisto, S.A. Validity of alcoholics self-reports: duration
data. International Journal of Addiction. 1981; 16: 401-406.
Freier, M. C., Bell, Robert M., & Ellickson,
P. Do teens tell the truth? The validity of self-reported
tobacco use by adolescents. Santa Monica, CA. The RAND Publication
This study examines the reliability and validity of self-reported
adolescent tobacco use. Psychometric properties of self-reported use
were assessed using a questionnaire, then matched with physiological
data (saliva samples collected and analyzed for cotinine). Data indicate
that the magnitude of underreporting was very low: less than 1 percent
of the total responses. Data also suggest that overreporting was not
widespread. The researchers conclude that adolescents "report
truthfully about tobacco use when proper data collection procedures
Midanik, L. Perspectives on the validity
of self-report alcohol use. British Journal of Addictions. 1989; 84:1419-1423.
Midanik, L. Validity of self-report
alcohol use: a literature review and assessment. British Journal of
Addictions. 1988; 83: 1019-1030.
Patrick, D. L., Cheadle, A., Thompson, D.
C., Diehr, P., Koepsell, T. Kinne, S. The validity of self-reported
smoking: a review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Public Health
1994: 84(7), 1086-1093.