How to Measure Attitudes with a Semantic Differential Scale

/ 11 min read
Jack Delaney

If you want to improve the quality of your company’s products or services (and who doesn’t?), it’s difficult to exaggerate how important it is to collect customer feedback.

Good customer feedback helps you improve your offerings, enhance team performance, grow brand loyalty and garner insights to make better business decisions in the future.

Customer satisfaction surveys are a great way to do this. The problem is the kind of information you get from basic surveys is limited—you need to take the time to think about what customer responses really mean and choose the right question types to maximize your data.

There's no better strategy for doing this than the semantic differential scale. In this post, we'll demystify the process so you can use the semantic differential technique like a pro and start reaping the rewards for your business.

What is a semantic differential scale?

When you Google the semantic differential scale, you’ll mostly find articles that read as if the writer ate a thesaurus for breakfast. If you collected all the five-dollar words you could fund an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii.

Why's this? Because the semantic differential scale has its origins in academia. And as the poet and author Charles Bukowski said, “an intellectual is someone who says a simple thing in a hard way.” So let’s try to cut to the chase.

The semantic differential scale is a survey rating tool that measures a person’s attitude towards something. It does so by asking respondents to make a judgement on a point-scale between two bipolar adjectives." For example, you could measure someone’s attitude towards their workplace culture with the scale below:

What is a semantic differential scale used for?

In the business world, this scale is used to ask people to rate an experience, product, idea or even a brand. It’s one of the most reliable ways to discover a person’s attitude towards, well, just about any topic you can think of.

The scale was developed in 1957 by Charles E. Osgood, a social psychologist who studied the field of psycholinguistics, a branch of cognitive science dealing with the mental aspects of speech and language.

In his research, Osgood discovered that across all cultures there are certain words and phrases that have negative or positive connotations. A connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes for a person outside of its literal meaning.

So while the word 'lion' refers to a large brownish-orange cat that lives in prides and is found in the African Savannah, its connotative meaning is bravery. In the same way, words like 'strong' and 'good' have positive connotations, while words like 'bad' and 'weak' have negative connotations.

While studying these connotations Osgood found there are three dimensions of 'affective meaning' that are universal across all cultures, regardless of language: evaluation (good-bad), potency (high-low) and activity (fast-slow).

Osgood realised that by using these antonyms (words with opposite meanings), you can understand a person’s emotional attitude towards just about anything. Voila, the semantic differential scale was born.

So how does it work? Well, you create questions with rating scales and ask respondents to give a judgement between two bipolar adjectives. Respondents then choose the point on the scale that best reflects their opinion.

semantic differential scale graphic

The academic explanation for what the scale does is that it measures the connotative meanings of emotional attitudes toward specific objects so that it can be recorded. But that's a mouthful.

To put it in plain English, it helps you understand how people feel about a certain thing. This is great for two reasons:

  1. It lets you understand the value the respondent places on the topic and;
  2. It gives respondents an opportunity to show you how your product or service did or didn’t live up to their expectations

Now, what started as a technique for social ethnography (the study of people and cultures) has been adapted to many fields, from the social sciences and therapy to consumer research and video game development.

This technique has become useful for a variety of subjects for businesses. You can use semantic differential scale questions to ask respondents to rate products, services, user experiences, or your brand as a whole.

Hopefully we’ve managed to simplify these surveys for you, now let’s compare it to another survey type that you’ll have used before: the Likert scale.

What's the difference between a semantic differential scale and a Likert scale?

The chances are you've come across a Likert scale question when filling out a survey or questionnaire. Like semantic differential scale questions, it's a popular way to measure attitudes. It does so by asking respondents to express how much they agree or disagree with a predefined statement.

A question that uses the Likert scale looks like this:

A Likert scale question

Semantic differential scales and Likert scales are kind of like moths and butterflies. At first, they seem similar, but once you take a good look you realize they’re nothing alike.

Let’s deal with the similarities first. Both scales ask respondents to report on a certain element of their experience and feature a list of options presented on a rating scale. Both also share the goal of better understanding what customers like or don’t like about a product, idea, service or brand as a whole.

But there are two key differences:

  • How the survey questions are asked
  • What kind of information the researcher hopes to obtain from the responses.

Examples of a Likert Scale vs a Semantic Differential

The main difference comes down to wording and perspective. Semantic differential questions are asked in a more open-ended way than Likert scale questions. Let's compare each scale to make the contrasts easier to spot.

First, a Likert scale question:

A Likert scale question

Now a semantic differential scale question:

A semantic differential scale question

The difference is pretty clear: the Likert scale question asks you to agree or disagree with a complete statement, while the semantic differential scale question asks you to complete the statement yourself, using the two opposite adjectives as guidelines.

Both questions have the exact same goal - to find out how you would rate this blog post. But the different way the question is asked affects how you respond.

Take the Likert question for example. It gives you a concrete statement that you have to agree or disagree with, or you can do your best Switzerland impression and stay neutral. In contrast, good old Charles Osgood’s semantic differential scale offers a more open-ended question that it’s up to you to complete based on your feelings.

Rather than being limited to levels of agreement, you can choose between the two contrasting words with a few options in between. There’s no need to ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’—if you don’t think the blog post is great you can just skew your answer slightly to the left.

The way the survey questions are framed also influences responses. You’ll notice that the Likert scale question starts with the assumption that ‘this blog post is good’. Intentionally or not, this uses the power of suggestion to plant the idea in your head that the blog post is, well, good.

Now imagine if instead, it said ‘this blog post is bad’. This gives the question an entirely different tone and can subconsciously affect your response. The semantic differential scale on the other hand provides bipolar adjectives that let you define the degree to which the blog post was great or terrible.

This brings us to the second difference between the two scales - questions using the semantic differential scale allow respondents much more autonomy to express unique opinions in their responses when compared to the Likert scale questions.

Where Likert scale questions are worded in a way that’s more restrictive and declarative, the bipolar adjectives of the semantic scale leave room for respondents to interpret questions in their own way and express their thoughts with more accuracy.

Let’s use another example. Take a look at this image of the New York skyline.

An image of a New York skyline

Take your time to inspect the ombre sunset and the soaring skyscrapers of the Big Apple. When you’re ready, answer this Likert scale question in your head:

A Likert scale question

Notice how this question defines the photograph as beautiful straight away? Rather than asking your opinion on whether you find the photo of New York beautiful or not, it asks you to agree or disagree with the statement that it is, in fact, beautiful.

Now take a look at how this changes with the semantic differential scale.

A semantic differential scale question

See how it doesn’t intrude with an outside opinion? It’s completely up to you, the respondent, to decide how you want to define the image within the bipolar scales. The choice is in your hands.

Semantic differential scale surveys help you get a more accurate idea of customers’ attitudes by trusting them to define their own unique values rather than holding their hands. This lets people describe their own attitudes, opinions and feelings and leads to more specific feedback.

Using this technique not only simplifies the measurement of attitudes, but it also allows you to collect data that is more honest and reliable (which means it’s more useful to your business).

How to use a semantic differential scale

As we touched on earlier, semantic differential scale surveys can be used for a wide variety of subjects, but they’re best suited for when you need to gain insight into your customer attitudes, needs or opinions, or to measure customer satisfaction.

This means that semantic differential scale surveys help you pinpoint your company’s strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of your respondents. From there you can decide which of these aspects of your business you need to focus on improving.

But before you do any of that you’ve got to actually create the survey. There are a few key rules to follow if you want to get the most out of the semantic scale.

1. Stick to the three dimensions

It’s best to make sure your rating scales stick to one of the three dimensions: evaluation, potency and activity. Charles Osgood spent years researching these things so you don’t have to - there’s no need to try and reinvent the wheel.

This ties in with the type of questions you ask. Semantic differential scale surveys need to be conducted with open-ended questions. These encourage more than a simple yes/no response and allow respondents to properly communicate their thoughts about the subject at hand.

2. Settle on the right bipolar adjectives

The hardest (and most important) part of creating your semantic differential survey is figuring out the right bipolar adjectives to use. Finding the right antonyms is the key ingredient to success - so make sure you spend some time thinking which words suit each question.

All that’s left is to create your survey. You’re in the right place. Paperform’s simple form builder makes it easy to create a semantic differential scale survey that’ll help you collect more attitudes than the manager of the Spice Girls.

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Create a semantic differential scale with Paperform

We actually have a semantic differential template you can use if you don't feel like building one from scratch. Prefer to do it yourself? We've included a short tutorial below to get you up and running.

Create a blank form and add the ‘Scale’ question type from the dropdown menu. This is the option you want to pick whether you’re using a semantic differential scale or a Likert scale.

Paperform UI

Type your question into the field. Remember to keep it simple and open-ended. Then click on the cogwheel to configure the question. Name your bipolar scales, and select how many points you want on your rating scale.

By default, you’ll see ten numbered points, but it’s standard for semantic differential scale surveys to be on a five or seven-point scale. It's up to you whether you want to replace each number with a word or use a combination of both. When you're done it will look something like this:

Paperform UI

Make sure you keep the negative adjective on the left side of the scale and adjust the words you use to suit the question you’re asking. Repeat this process for each individual question.

You can also include a text box beneath each question as a way for customers to expand on their responses. That way you can get even more in-depth feedback.

A semantic differential scale question

Once you’ve created your questions, you can customize your form to look just how you want it. Change fonts and colours and add images, videos and your brand logo to make it as unique as you are.

When you’re happy with your flash new semantic differential scale survey you can share a link to your self-hosted form with Paperform, embed it on your website or share it via email. Then just sit back, kick your feet up and wait for the responses to roll in.

You can analyze your responses with Paperform Analytics, or export the data to your favourite business tools with one of over 3,000 integrations with popular apps like Google Sheets, Asana and Mailchimp.

Over to you

Semantic differential scale surveys are one of the most powerful tools you can harness in order to understand your customer attitudes. They encourage you not to think of customers as bland numbers, but to take the time to discover their unique opinions, thoughts and ideas.

By collecting and analysing this data you can gain unprecedented insights into what is and isn’t working within your business. Is that new product hitting the mark? Is your website easy to use? Is your in-store playlist giving the right vibe?

From shaping your ideal workplace culture to staying ahead of the curve with a competitive pricing plan, the responses you receive will highlight strengths and weaknesses and ultimately help improve your business.

So don’t waste any more time wondering what your customers think or where you’re going wrong. Make a semantic differential scale survey today with Paperform's 14-day free trial—no credit card required.


💡 Semantic Differential Scale FAQs:

What is an example of a semantic differential question?
Semantic differential scale questions ask respondents to mark their position on a scale between two opposite adjectives, such as "Good-Bad", "Hot-Cold", "Black-White."

What is the purpose of semantic differential scale?
The purpose of a semantic differentrial scale is to measure a person's attitude towards a particular concept. This can be anything, though businesses use it to discover customer attitudes towards an experience, product, idea or their brand.

How many adjectives are there in a semantic differential scale?
A semantic differential scale uses two bipolar adjectives, one negative adjective on the left of the scale, and one positive adjective on the right of the scale. For example, Bad (left) and Good (right).

What's the difference between Likert scale and semantic differential?
A Likert scale question asks you to agree or disagree with a complete statement, while a semantic differential scale question asks you to complete the statement yourself, using the two opposite adjectives as guidelines on a pre-defined scale.

About the author
Jack Delaney
Content Manager
Jack is Paperform's Content Manager, based in Sydney, Australia. He loves hard-boiled crime fiction, Michael Mann movies and coffee as black as midnight on a moonless night.

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