Nothing but the truth: Consistency and efficiency of the list experiment method for the measurement of sensitive health behaviours

Aurélia Lépine, Carole Treibich, Ben D’Exelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
16 Downloads (Pure)


Rationale: Social desirability bias, which is the tendency to under-report socially, undesirable health behaviours, significantly distorts information on sensitive behaviours, gained from self-reports and prevents accurate estimation of the prevalence of those, behaviours. We contribute to a growing body of literature that seeks to assess the performance of the list experiment method to improve estimation of these sensitive health behaviours. Method: We use a double-list experiment design in which respondents serve as the treatment group for one list and as the control group for the other list to estimate the prevalence of two sensitive health behaviours in different settings: condom use among 500 female sex workers in urban Senegal and physical intimate partner violence among 1700 partnered women in rural Burkina Faso. First, to assess whether the list experiment improves the accuracy of estimations of the prevalence of sensitive behaviours, we compare the prevalence rates estimated from self-reports with those elicited through the list experiment. Second, we test whether the prevalence rates of the sensitive behaviours obtained using the double-list design are similar, and we estimate the reduction in the standard errors obtained with this design. Finally, we compare the results obtained through another indirect elicitation method, the polling vote method. Results: We show that the list experiment method reduces misreporting by 17 percentage points for condom use and 16–20 percentage points for intimate partner violence. Exploiting the double-list experiment design, we also demonstrate that the prevalence estimates obtained through the use of the two lists are identical in the full sample and across sub-groups and that the double-list design reduces the standard errors by approximately 40% compared to the standard errors in the simple list design. Finally, we show that the list experiment method leads to a higher estimation of the prevalence of sensitive behaviours than the polling vote method. Conclusion: The study suggests that list experiments are an effective method to improve estimation of the prevalence of sensitive health behaviours.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113326
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date29 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • Burkina Faso
  • Condom use
  • Intimate partner violence
  • List experiment
  • Senegal
  • Social desirability bias
  • Survey

Cite this