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Research - 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:

  • "The sensitivity of the information sought (e.g. demographic vs arrest records)
  • 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 intoxicated)
  • 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 Series, 1991.
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 are followed."

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.