Behind the veil: Social desirability bias and animal welfare ballot initiatives


Farm animal welfare (FAW) issues are becoming increasingly political in many countries, as evidenced by the increased use of regulations, legislation, and ballot initiatives. Available empirical evidence however, indicates that consumer valuation of improved animal welfare is low, although positive. As a result of the sensitive nature of FAW issues, public preferences for improved FAW standards can be susceptible to social desirability bias leading to disparities between regulatory standards and the public’s “true” preferences. Given the potential negative impacts of high mandated FAW standards on food costs and the associated consumer and producer welfare losses, this study examined the issue of effective public preference elicitation in animal welfare ballot initiatives. Specifically, we examined social desirability, the tendency to conform to the social norms, and its role in generating overenthusiasm in the support for FAW issues and policy instruments. We used data from an opt-in survey of respondents and compared results of a List Experiments (LE) to a conventional (direct) survey format. Our results show that public support for the FAW issues examined was consistently overestimated when elicited with the conventional survey format. We discuss the implications of these outcomes for animal welfare policy and offer suggestions to researchers and practitioners eliciting preferences in other sensitive food policy contexts.

Food Policy