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Survey Scale

A survey scale is an orderly arrangement of response options from which respondents select to indicate their level of feeling about a survey question. The most popular scale asks respondents to rate their level of agreement with a survey question or statement.

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Why use survey scales?

Survey scales are important because they help respondents quantify what they think or how they feel about certain things. In other words, they allow respondents to assign specific quantifiable values to feelings, ideas, experiences, and expectations instead of providing vague or ambiguous responses.

Choosing the number of rating levels

Choosing the number of rating levels

After you decide what you want respondents to rate (i.e., liking, agreement, etc.), you need to determine how many rating levels they’ll be able to choose from. How fine of a distinction do you want to be able to make between those who agree or those who disagree? Decades of psychological research have shown that a six-point scale with three levels of disagreement and three levels of agreement works best. Here’s an example:

Avoiding response bias

Avoiding response bias

A six-point scale gives you ample flexibility for data analysis. Depending on the questions, other scales may be appropriate — but the important thing to remember is that it must be balanced, or you will build in response bias. For example, a recent survey of the U.S. Post Office conducted by a household name survey company included the following scale:

The data collected using this scale will be artificially skewed to the positive because there are more positive than negative rating options. It’s not just the survey question language that can skew your data, making scores more positive or negative than they really are. The scale itself (as we’ve just shown) can skew your data, too.
Stay away from neutral ratings

Stay away from neutral ratings

Surveys created by trained researchers will not contain a neutral option, such as “I don’t know,” in the scale. Including a neutral rating option negatively influences your data, which can have a huge impact on your survey results.

People harbor opinions about virtually everything, including things on which they think they have no opinion. The president of an East Coast survey consulting firm suggested that we consider “vanilla ice cream” as an example in defense of the firm’s use of a neutral point. He expected us to be neutral about it — but we were not. We said we liked vanilla ice cream.

When people are encouraged to make a selection one way or the other — whether it is like/dislike or agree/disagree — they can do so, even if they lean that way slightly. Providing a “no-brain” option allows them an escape from thinking about an answer, and it costs you data.

“I don’t know” costs you money

“I don’t know” costs you money

There is also a financial reason for not having a neutral point in your survey scale. Here is a common five-point scale:

With a five-point scale (two positives, two negatives, and one neutral), each point represents 20 percent of your data. If one of those points is “Don’t Know,” you could be throwing away up to 20 percent of your survey dollars on no information at all.

Instead of a neutral option, you’re better off directing respondents to skip questions that don’t pertain to them or — better still — not having irrelevant questions on the survey in the first place!

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