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Psychol Methods. 2014 Sep;19(3):334-55. doi: 10.1037/a0034961. Epub 2013 Dec 2.

Estimating the prevalence of socially sensitive behaviors: attributing guilty and innocent noncompliance with the single sample count method.

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  • 1Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing.
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield.


Prevalence estimation models, using randomized or fuzzy responses, provide protection against exposure to respondents beyond anonymity and represent a useful research tool in socially sensitive situations. However, both guilty and innocent noncompliance can have a profound impact on prevalence estimations derived from these models. In this article, we introduce the maximum-likelihood extension of the single sample count (SSC-MLE) estimation model to detect and attribute noncompliance through testing 5 competing hypotheses on possible ways of noncompliance. We demonstrate the ability of the SSC-MLE to estimate and attribute noncompliance with a single sample using the observed distribution of affirmative answers on recent recreational drug use from a sample of university students (N = 1,441). Based on the survey answers, the drug use prevalence was estimated at 17.62% (± 6.75%), which is in line with relevant drug use statistics. Only 2.51% (± 1.54%) were noncompliant, of which 0.55% (± 0.44%) was attributed to guilty noncompliance (i.e., have used drugs but did not admit) and 2.17% (± 1.44%) to innocent noncompliers with no drug use in the past 3 months to hide. The SSC-MLE indirect estimation method represents an important tool for estimating the prevalence of a broad range of socially sensitive behaviors. Subsequent applications of the SSC-MLE to a range of transgressive behaviors with varying sensitivity will contribute to establishing the SSC-MLE's performance properties, along with obtaining empirical evidence to test the underlying assumption of independence of noncompliance from involvement. Freely downloadable, user-friendly software to facilitate applications of the SSC-MLE model is provided.

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