LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention:
Review and Analysis By David Stewart

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Chapter III-07: Social Acceptability Bias and Limitations of Self-Reported Data

The sociologic survey using self-reported data from respondents is by nature a lower quality type of research than randomized interventional studies or direct observational studies. The greatest limitation of survey methodology is that of respondent self-reporting, as respondents' answers are recorded at face value without being independently verified. Yet religious topics are emotional and highly charged ones, and self-reported religious data sometimes reflect individuals' idealizations of themselves rather than actual realities, or a bias towards responses that are deemed to be more socially acceptable than their alternatives (social acceptability bias).

Accumulated sociologic research demonstrates that survey questions regarding church attendance and other faith-related behaviors experience astoundingly high rates of false positive responses, with many people claiming to perform religious behaviors when in fact they do not. From 1992 to 2003, between 38-44% of Americans on the annual Gallup poll reported having attended religious services within the prior week. However, several studies have found that only about half of individuals who report attending church each week in the United States and United Kingdom actually do so.[1] Evangelical researcher George Barna reported that among American Christians, "One out of every six adults (17%) claims to tithe, but a comparison of the amount that people gave to churches and their household income revealed that just 6% actually donated one-tenth of their income (pre-tax or post-tax) to churches."[2] Although one hopes that the accuracy of self-reported data is higher among Latter-day Saints than among other US Christian groups, the correlation between the self-reported behaviors and actual performance has not been validated, and significant concerns regarding such data are warranted.

These limitations of self-reported data defy simple solution. Direct observation of survey participants invokes privacy concerns regarding religious behaviors that are generally viewed as personal, and is typically not feasible regardless due to limited study resources and manpower. The correlation of study results with other data is necessary to provide context. As these limitations do not appear to be readily solvable, conscientious researchers should at least acknowledge and discuss these limitations.

[1] Andrew Walsh, "Church, Lies and Polling Data," Religion in the News, 1998-Fall, Vol. 1, #2, at; M. Chaves, K. Hadaway & P. Marler, "What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance," American Sociological Review, 1993; "How many North Americans attend religious services (and how many lie about going)?,"
[2] Barna, George. "Churches Lose Financial Ground in 2000." 5 June 2001.