Trying to determine a person’s attitude toward an event, experience, or object isn’t as simple as asking them if they like or dislike it. People frequently have far more nuanced reactions or attitudes. Organizations have used Likert scale survey questions for generations to determine how people feel about specific topics, such as product satisfaction.
The Likert scale gets its name from Rensis Likert, a highly influential social psychologist who made significant contributions to the business world in the mid 20th century with his work in organizational psychology. The scale that he devised in 1932 is one of the most widely used survey tools in existence. You’re probably familiar with Likert scales, even if the name is unfamiliar.
Below is an explanation of how organizations use Likert scales as well as some examples of the different types.
What is a Likert scale?
A Likert scale is a psychometric scale used in surveys to gauge the opinions and attitudes of people when responding to specific questions. It typically gives four, five, or seven options for responses that range from polar opposites — such as complete agreement to complete disagreement or complete satisfaction to complete dissatisfaction — with more moderate options in between. Odd-numbered Likert scales allow a middle option that’s neutral. Likert scales can have more or fewer answer options, depending on the goal of the survey.
The Likert scale has become an essential research tool for measuring attitudes, opinions, and likelihood in the decades since Professor Likert first proposed its use for research. It’s one of the most common survey tools used today because of its effectiveness in measuring not just a person’s attitude but the intensity of that attitude.
Just so you know
Likert scale survey questions
The goal of Likert scale survey questions is to measure the strength of a person’s opinion about or attitude toward something, or their likelihood to do something. These typically aren’t yes or no questions. For instance, the question, “Have you traveled more than 500 miles from your home on vacation?” wouldn’t be good for a Likert scale survey since the person either has or hasn’t.
The sort of question best suited for a Likert scale might instead ask, “How likely are you to take a vacation at least 500 miles from home in the next year?” With such a question, the options for answers might be
- Very likely
- Somewhat unlikely
- Very unlikely
- Definitely not
Likert scale surveys often don’t actually pose scenarios in the form of questions but instead use statements to determine the degree to which a respondent agrees or disagrees. The best results often require multiple statements — if the respondent is willing to take the time to answer.
Here are some examples of Likert scale survey topics and questions:
- “I prefer to shop online rather than in stores.” The answer options might include strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree.
- “How important is it to you that your physician graduated from an Ivy League medical school?” The responses might be very important, important, somewhat important, not very important, and not important at all.
- “How often do you travel by plane for business?” The most common response options would be very frequently, frequently, occasionally, rarely, very rarely, and never.
These are examples of Likert scale surveys attempting to measure agreement, value, and frequency. The Likert scale is a reliable tool for measuring such difficult-to-measure items as how important something is to a person, their likelihood of taking an action, or the relevance of something to them.
Likert scale points
Likert scale surveys typically give the person being surveyed four, five, or seven options for answering a particular question, though there is no fixed number. The answer options range from the extremes of complete agreement to complete disagreement, with options in between for more moderate responses.
Individuals and organizations use the Likert scale to survey quantitative responses, such as someone’s satisfaction with customer service, or their likelihood of taking a particular action, such as voting in an upcoming election. News organizations frequently mention the latter example, likelihood of voting, to determine not just the preference of voters for a particular candidate but the likelihood they will actually cast a ballot.
The Likert scale presumes a person’s opinion or attitude moves in increments from the two extreme options through more moderate opinions. Surveys using Likert scales often allow respondents the option of a neutral opinion.
The various types of Likert scales are distinguished simply by the number of answer options provided to the respondent. Likert scale surveys most often have five-point or seven-point scales, but they can range from as few as two points to as many as nine or more.
“Forced” Likert scales
Likert scales are typically odd-numbered to allow for a neutral answer, with an even number of options on either end moving toward the polar opposite responses. Sometimes, however, a neutral position isn’t helpful to the survey.
In these situations, the Likert scale omits a neutral response to “force” an opinion from the survey subject. For instance, a survey to determine likelihood — whether to vote, take a vacation in the next six months, or purchase a particular brand — might offer four possible answers:
- Definitely won’t
- Probably won’t
- Probably will
- Definitely will
Structuring your Likert scale survey to “force” an opinion works best for surveying people at the conclusion of an interaction, such as someone who has contacted customer service. In this circumstance, it’s important to get them to express a definite opinion, which you can safely assume they have formed.
A customer satisfaction survey can simply ask, “How do you rate the customer service you received?” The respondent could choose from the following options:
- Very good
- Very poor
Some research indicates that the order of response options in a list can influence the results of the survey, particularly if the most positive option appears first. Some organizations vary the order of options to place the negative responses first and work downward to the most positive — the idea being that by presenting the options one way half of the time and the other half of the time the other way, they get more reliable cumulative survey results.
Types of Likert scales
Likert scales have a finite list of responses to a question or statement. The number of responses allowed distinguishes the various types of Likert scales. The three most common types of Likert scales are four point, five point, and seven point.
Four-point Likert scale
The four-point Likert scale is the most common “forced” Likert scale — it allows a range of responses but doesn’t provide an option for a neutral response. It’s an excellent tool for measuring customers’ responses to a service or product that you know they’ve used and are confident they have a definite opinion about.
The scenario in the previous section — surveying customers following an interaction with your customer service department — is a good example.
One single question might be all that you can persuade the customer to answer, so consider carefully what to ask. Instead of asking, “How would you rate your overall experience with customer service?” you might find it more helpful to ask, “How do you rate the helpfulness of the customer service representative?” and provide the same list of response options.
Five-point Likert scale
The five-point Likert scale is the one most familiar to the general public. It allows a neutral — or no opinion — response to a question or statement, with two polar opposite responses and two intermediate responses. That same survey of customer service experience might offer the following answer options: excellent, good, no opinion, poor, and very poor.
Researchers have spent considerable effort studying neutral responses on Likert scales. While there are indications they make it more likely respondents will answer, an answer of “no opinion” is inherently difficult to interpret when the topic is something the person has experienced.
You can phrase the neutral response in various ways besides simply “no opinion” or “neither agree nor disagree.” On the customer satisfaction survey, instead of allowing the option of “no opinion,” you might replace it with “about what I expected.”
Seven-point Likert scale
The seven-point Likert scale is similar to the five-point scale but with additional intermediate options between neutral and the two extremes. The seven-point Likert scale is particularly appropriate for determining agreement with a survey using statements rather than questions.
While the five-point scale is usually adequate for asking people to rate a product or service, the seven-point scale is considered better for determining how much importance they place on something. You’ll often see the seven-point scale in public opinion surveying. An example could be this statement: “Reducing deficit spending is crucial to maintaining the economic health of the country.” The response options would be
- Strongly disagree
- Somewhat disagree
- Neither agree nor disagree
- Somewhat agree
- Strongly agree
The option for a neutral response is more important on a survey of this sort, as the question posed might not be something the person has given a lot of thought to. Similarly, additional moderate options allow for a more realistic range of possible opinions on matters that people are aware of and have considered but don’t feel strongly about.
Likert scales are highly versatile and intuitive. While there are countless academic articles about using Likert scales and quantifying the results, laypeople, such as business owners or community groups, can easily adapt them for their surveys.