The research reviewed in this chapter demonstrates that some degree of skepticism about global self-assessment is warranted. The processes involved in constructing responses to self-report questions are complicated, and these processes do not always occur in a logical and consistent manner. Respondents may fail to think carefully about their judgments, they may use idiosyncratic processes when making a response, and they may rely on inconsistent and temporarily accessible information rather than conducting an exhaustive search of their memory. Furthermore, in many situations it is difficult to tell whether respondents are accurately communicating their true response to the researcher. Some respondents may wish to present themselves in a favorable light, whereas others may simply use response scales in idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways.
Yet in spite of these limitations, self-reports have many benefits. These methods are very flexible and efficient; and perhaps most important, they provide access to information that would be very difficult to obtain in any other way. Thus, the key question for researchers interested in using self-report is whether the errors and the sources of unwanted variance described in this chapter strongly affect the validity of self-report measures. Simply demonstrating that these effects can occur in experimental studies does not prove that they severely limit the validity of self-reports used in other contexts. In some cases, effects that have been demonstrated in experimental settings have been shown to have only a minimal impact on the validity of self-report measures (e.g., Eid & Diener, 2004). In addition, research in a number of domains shows that self-reports can be accurate, valid, and predictive of important outcomes.
Self-reports, like any measurement technique, have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Respondents may have unique access to information about the construct of interest, but they may be unable or unwilling to accurately report on this construct. However, errors that result from respondents' inability to remember past behaviors or their unwillingness to accurately report their feelings are unlikely to be shared across different measurement techniques. For instance, experience sampling measures of online experiences can be used to counteract memory problems (Stone & Litcher-Kelly, this volume, chap. 5); informant reports can be used to overcome respondents' unwillingness to respond honestly (Neyer, this volume, chap. 4). In addition, new developments in implicit and other cognitive measures (Robinson & Neighbors, this volume, chap. 9), as well as advances in psychophysiological measurement (Berntson & Cacioppo, this volume, chap. 12) offer new alternatives to self-report in domains like emotion and attitude assessment. Each technique has its own set of problems, and any single strategy will likely be most useful when used in combination with additional techniques. Thus, self-reports, like all assessments, are most effective when used as part of a comprehensive multimethod battery. Researchers who use multimethod assessment in this way can reap the benefits of self-report while avoiding many of the problems associated with this useful technique.
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