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Unipolar versus bipolar measures

The issue

Linked to the issue of scale anchoring is whether the scale is intended to be unipolar (i.e. reflecting a single construct running from low to high) or bipolar (running between two opposing constructs). In a unipolar format, the scale midpoint is intended to represent a moderate amount of the variable of interest, whereas in a bipolar format the midpoint is intended to represent a more neutral territory in between the two opposing constructs:

A unipolar scale:

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Not at all happy

(Moderately

happy)

Completely

happy

A bipolar scale:

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Completely

unhappy

(Neither happy nor unhappy)

Completely

happy

Although this distinction between bipolar and unipolar scales may seem very subtle, it should, in theory, have significant consequences for the meaning of the scale points. For example, a score of 0 on the unipolar scale above implies the absence of happiness, whereas a score of 5 implies a moderate amount of happiness. Conversely, on the bipolar scale, a score of 0 should denote complete un happiness, a score of 5 implies the respondent is neither happy nor unhappy, and a score around 7 or 8 would imply a moderate amount of happiness. If scale polarity - and the meaning of the midpoint value - is not completely clear to respondents, they may vary in how they interpret the scale, thus introducing a source of error. Furthermore, if one study adopts a 0-10 bipolar scale set of anchors, and the other a 0-10 unipolar set, mean values on these measures may not be comparable, despite both adopting 11-point response scales.

 
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