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Semantic Differential

Semantic Differential

By Dr. Saul McLeod, published

The semantic differential technique of Osgood et al. (1957) asks a person to rate an issue or topic on a standard set of bipolar adjectives (i.e. with opposite meanings), each representing a seven point scale.

To prepare a semantic differential scale, you must first think of a number of words with opposite meanings that are applicable to describing the subject of the test.

For example, participants are given a word, for example 'car', and presented with a variety of adjectives to describe it.  Respondents tick to indicate how they feel about what is being measured.

 semantic differential technique

The semantic differential technique reveals information on three basic dimensions of attitudes: evaluation, potency (i.e. strength) and activity.

Evaluation is concerned with whether a person thinks positively or negatively about the attitude topic (e.g. dirty – clean, and ugly - beautiful).

Potency is concerned with how powerful the topic is for the person (e.g. cruel – kind, and strong - weak).

Activity is concerned with whether the topic is seen as active or passive (e.g. active – passive).

Using this information we can see if a persons feeling (evaluation) towards an object is consistent with their behavior.  For example, a place might like the taste of chocolate (evaluative) but not eat it often (activity).

The evaluation dimension has been most used by social psychologists as a measure of a person’s attitude, because this dimension reflects the affective aspect of an attitude.


An attitude scale is designed to provide a valid, or accurate, measure of an individual’s social attitude.  However, as anyone who has every “faked” an attitude scales knows there are shortcomings in these self report scales of attitudes.

There are various problems that affect the validity of attitude scales.  However, the most common problem is that of social desirability.

Socially desirability refers to the tendency for people to give “socially desirable” to the questionnaire items.  People are often motivated to give replies that make them appear “well adjusted”, unprejudiced, open minded and democratic.  Self report scales that measure attitudes towards race, religion, sex etc. are heavily affected by socially desirability bias.

Respondents who harbor a negative attitude towards a particular group may not wish be admit to the experimenter (or to themselves) that they have these feelings.  Consequently, responses on attitude scales are not always 100% valid.

APA Style References

Buck, J. N. (1948). The HTP test. Journal of Clinical psychology.

Osgood, C.E,  Suci, G., & Tannenbaum, P. (1957). The Measurement of Meaning. University of Illinois Press, 1

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, October 24). Semantic-Differential. Simply Psychology.

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