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What is the Semantic Differential?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

The semantic differential is a scale used for measuring an individual's response to a particular concept, idea, product, or other item. In a typical example, two opposing concepts are put at opposite ends of a scale, and individuals are asked to rate their feelings about the concepts. There are usually five blanks in between the two opposites, allowing those tested to demonstrate how strongly they feel about the association.

A survey determining favorite vacation spots may ask individuals if they prefer going somewhere with hot weather or cold weather. These two opposing ideas are placed on opposite ends of a semantic differential scale with five blanks in between. The center blank is a neutral opinion, reserved for those individuals who don't base their vacation choices on weather or who feel equally about the two choices. To the extreme left and extreme right are blanks for those who indicate that one choice or the other is a major factor in determining where they go on vacation. The other two spots are for those who prefer one or the other, but say it is not an absolutely crucial part of their decision process.


Doctors will often present patients with a semantic differential survey in order to assess the severity of a condition. This is often in the form of a list of symptoms, alongside a scale that allows the patient to rank which symptoms he or she has and how bad they are. Chiropractors may use a similar scale that allows them to pinpoint problem areas before even talking to the patient.

In psychology, these semantic differential scales can be used to determine an individual's personality type, based on reactions to different words and situations. An individual with an outgoing personality type will have ranked options in a way slanted more toward extroversion, while a more introverted individual will rank solo activities and privacy as more important. In addition to measuring what an individual thinks about performing an activity or about certain key words, the scales can also be used to determine how likely an individual is to perform a certain activity.

Surveys based on a semantic differential have a number of applications. Commercial organizations can use them to determine how consumers feel about their products and marketing campaign, or to help them decide what products to release next based on client interest. In a cultural study, the process can also help tell how individuals belonging to a certain religion or ethnicity tend to view concepts.

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