GuidesSurveysWhen to use a semantic differential scale

When to use a semantic differential scale

Last updated

11 March 2023

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

In its most basic form, a semantic differential scale is a survey you use to conduct a psychological measurement. You can use the scale to understand your audience's approaches, attitudes, and perspectives. 

Researchers use the survey to allow respondents to express their judgment of a topic on a multi-point scale.

Questionnaires that use semantic differential scales to gauge opinion are highly reliable in getting information about people's emotions about a particular subject. 

For example, you can use the scale to measure people's attitudes about a service, their views on a product, or your staff's level of satisfaction. 

The ratings from the survey oscillate, showing two opposing reactions to the topic of the study, like ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or ‘low’ to ‘high.’

What is a semantic differential scale?

American psychologist, Charles Egerton Osgood, created the semantic differential scale in 1957 to measure people's emotional attitudes toward concepts or objects. 

It operates on two dimensions: 

  • Evaluative, which reflects the positivity or negativity of the attitude

  • Potency, which reflects the perceived strength or power of the concept or object

The tool is language- and culture-independent. It allows organizations and brands to gather valuable insights on subjects such as employee satisfaction or customer experience.

Osgood also coined the phrase 'connotative meaning,’ which refers to people’s subjective emotional attitudes or associations about words, images, films, and entities like organizations or brands.

What are the advantages of the semantic differential scale?

Understanding the public's feelings toward your product or knowing the level of employee satisfaction is an incredibly powerful tool for the success of your business. 

Knowing about people's emotional leanings toward or against your brand is vital in establishing their sense of trust, ownership, and loyalty.

Furthermore, it helps you quantify your ability to attract and retain top talent, customer loyalty to your brand, and the pricing of your product or service.

Surveys that use a semantic differential scale offer one of the most reliable ways to obtain information about respondents' emotional attitudes. 

It asks people to rate things with a multi-point scale that uses opposing adjectives, like ‘love’ or ‘hate,’ ‘satisfied’ or ‘unsatisfied.’

The main advantage of a semantic differential scale is that surveys are straightforward for researchers and respondents. It makes obtaining accurate ratings on something as subjective as human feelings easier. 

Moreover, almost everyone has taken this type of survey, so respondents will know what they’re doing without much explanation.

As these surveys ask people to choose extremely opposite adjectives, respondents feel more comfortable expressing their opinions.

Yet another advantage of semantic differential scale questions is that they have a long history of success in behavioral analyses and customer satisfaction surveys.

What are the disadvantages of the semantic differential scale?

While the semantic differential scale is helpful for measuring emotional attitudes toward products or services, it has limitations. 

One challenge is deciding how many options to offer on the scale: Too few options may lead to inaccurate results that lack nuance, while too many can be confusing.

Additionally, it can be challenging to interpret neutral responses, as they may not reflect a clear emotional attitude. 

Another limitation is the risk of survey bias, where the respondent may choose an option that doesn't truly reflect their emotions due to the presented parameters. 

Finally, interpreting the results can be subjective, as they rely on the researcher's judgment. 

These limitations are important to remember when using the semantic differential scale for research purposes.

What are the types of semantic differential scales?

The following are samples and illustrations of survey types that use semantic differential scales to gauge user opinions. You can use any of the following survey types to conduct insightful questionnaires or user surveys for your business:

Matrix rating

A matrix rating form presents respondents with a close-ended questionnaire that asks them to evaluate a group of items using similar parameters. 

You usually present matrix questions within a grid format of columns and rows, where the columns represent the choices and the rows are the questions.

Using a matrix-style rating allows your form respondents to give easily give you structured answers to your questions. 

Brands commonly use this type of rating to determine consumer sentiment within target markets and customer satisfaction surveys.

Open-ended question

An open-ended question is a valuable tool in survey research. It allows respondents to freely express their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions without the constraints of pre-set responses. 

This type of question offers researchers deeper insights into the attitudes and opinions of their respondents. Critically,  open-ended questions in the semantic differential scale are slightly different. Respondents rate a concept on a scale with two opposing anchors, such as ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful.’ 

This method gives researchers a more nuanced understanding of respondents’ perceptions of a particular concept. It can be instrumental in gauging emotional attitudes toward products or services.

Rating scale

The rating scale is an example of a close-ended survey query that lets your form respondents offer comparative feedback regarding specific products, features, or services. 

A rating scale lets researchers conduct qualitative evaluations by collecting relative data from respondents regarding a specific topic.

There are two types of rating scales: Ordinal and interval. 

The ordinal scale offers different options in order, letting researchers use parameters like attitude and feedback. On the other hand, an interval scale presents random options.

Star rating scale

The star rating scale is a matrix rating that enables people to assess a product or service by assigning ranks to its attributes on a five-point scale. You use stars to symbolize this rating scale instead of checkboxes or radio buttons to symbolize this rating scale. 

You streamline the survey response time and decrease the survey abandonment rate by incorporating a star rating scale in your survey. 

Because of its ease of use, simplicity, and everyday usage, a star rating is popular for gathering customer satisfaction and product feedback

Heart rating scale

The heart rating scale is a pictorial rating scale, much like stars. 

It’s a way to assess someone’s level of satisfaction with a product or service. It represents ranked parameters as hearts instead of numbers, checkboxes, or radio buttons. 

Like a star rating scale, the number of hearts on each attribute reflects its numerical value. Businesses widely use this method to collect customer feedback

Sample questions for the heart rating scale:

  • How satisfied were you with our service delivery?

  • What is your rating of this event? 

What are examples of semantic differential scales in action?

Semantic differential scales are common in evaluation survey templates to measure various aspects, such as job satisfaction and brand attitude. These scales provide a simple, effective method for respondents to express their opinions and provide valuable insights.

Job satisfaction surveys

A semantic differential scale can be an ideal choice when measuring job satisfaction. It provides a clear and concise way to gauge employee job satisfaction, allowing organizations to make informed decisions about improving their workplace environment. 

The scale typically involves presenting respondents with a pair of opposing adjectives or phrases and asking them to rate their level of agreement or disagreement. This method is a quick and easy way to gather data and analyze trends.

Brand attitude analysis

Brand attitude analysis is another area where semantic differential scales can be useful. Presenting respondents with a set of adjectives or phrases can help organizations gauge the public's perception of their brand image. 

Companies can use this information to inform marketing and branding strategies, helping them improve their brand image and reputation.

Alternatives to semantic differential scales

While the semantic differential scale measures a subject’s associated emotions or connotations, it has alternatives. The Thurstone, Likert, and Guttman scales measure respondents' attitudes, beliefs, or opinions.

Likert scale

The Likert scale measures respondents' attitudes or beliefs toward a particular item. 

Respondents indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a statement using a scale that ranges from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’ 

Unlike the semantic differential scale, the Likert scale does not measure the emotions or connotations associated with an item.

Thurstone scale

The Thurstone scale measures respondents' opinions or preferences. Respondents rank a set of choices based on their relative desirability. 

This scale requires respondents to rank items instead of indicating their level of agreement or disagreement with a statement.

Guttman scale

The Guttman scale indicates respondents' attitudes or opinions towards a particular item. Respondents select their level of agreement or disagreement with a set of statements. 

The Guttman scale differs from a semantic differential scale, requiring respondents to answer a series of increasingly specific questions.

The bottom line

Semantic scale questionnaires are simple to administer and allow respondents to express their opinions freely. This simplicity greatly contributes to accuracy and statistical significance

Another benefit of the semantic differential scale is its time-saving aspect: A researcher only needs to pick two opposing terms for their surveys to measure sentiment.

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