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The evidence

Evidence suggests that respondents may have difficulty understanding the intended polarity of affect scales. Russell and Carroll (1999) and Schimmack, Bockenholt and Reisenzein (2002) suggest that many affect scales seemingly designed as unipolar measures could in fact be ambiguous or interpreted by at least some respondents as bipolar. For example, Russell and Carroll (1998; reported in Russell and Carroll, 1999) ran a pre-test with 20 respondents drawn from the general public using the question below, asking them to supply a word to describe each response option:

Please describe your mood right now:








Not happy


None of their sample interpreted this as a unipolar scale. The typical respondent placed the scale neutral point (i.e. the absence of happiness) around the middle of the scale (response option 4). All respondents used negative words (e.g. sad, glum, bad) to describe response option 2 - thus implying they perceived the response format to be bipolar.

Some response formats may be more confusing than others in terms of communicating scale polarity to respondents. In a study with N = 259 undergraduate students, Schimmack et al. (2002) presented a range of different response formats for measures of current affect. All of the measures were intended to be unipolar - that is to say, they were designed to measure one aspect of affect only (joyful, depressed, pleasant, unpleasant, cheerful, downhearted, etc.).The majority of respondents, however, indicated that the neutral absence of emotion was represented by the middle of the scale for all four response formats tested. Even with the simplest format of all (the yes/no option), only 9% of respondents thought that the absence of emotion was best represented by the no category. The measure that divided respondent opinion most of all was the 7-point intensity scale, where 59% of respondents indicated that the absence of emotion was best represented by the scale midpoint (3, labelled moderately), whereas only 27% indicated that it was represented by the endpoint (0, labelled not at all).

Segura and Gonzalez-Roma (2003) used item response theory to examine how respondents interpret response formats for affect experienced in the past two weeks. They tested a series of positive and negative affect items with four independent samples, and included both a 6-point frequency (never - all of the time) and a 7-point intensity (not at all

- entirely) response format. Although these response formats are typically used as unipolar measures, Segura and Gonzalez-Roma’s results indicated that respondents tended to construe the formats as bipolar, regardless of whether they required frequency or intensity judgments. One possible interpretation offered for these results is that respondents might use a mental representation of affect that is bipolar.

Although there is a considerable literature regarding the uni- versus bi-polar nature of affect measures, there has been less discussion about polarity or dimensionality in relation to evaluative and eudaimonic measures of subjective well-being. Current practice in single-item evaluative life satisfaction and Cantril Ladder measures is to adopt bipolar extremes as anchors (i.e. “completely dissatisfied/satisfied” and “worst possible/best possible life”); similarly, Diener and Biswas-Diener (2009) and Huppert and So (2009) both anchor their eudaimonia or psychological well-being scales between strongly agree and strongly disagree.

In a rare study addressing scale polarity in the context of evaluative measures, Davern and Cummins (2006) directly compared unipolar and bipolar measures of life satisfaction and life dissatisfaction. A random sample of 518 Australians completed assessments of life as a whole, as well as seven other sub-domains (e.g. health, personal relationships, safety). The unipolar response format was an 8-point scale, ranging from not at all satisfied to extremely satisfied (or not at all dissatisfied to extremely dissatisfied), and the bipolar scale ranged from -7 extremely dissatisfied to +7 extremely satisfied. The authors reported no significant difference in satisfaction scores derived from the unipolar and bipolar measures, both of which indicated mean scores of around 70% of scale maximum, across the majority of questions. This suggests that respondents essentially treated unipolar and bipolar satisfaction measures the same way. UK experience suggests similar results when comparing a single-item life satisfaction question between surveys conducted by a UK government department (DEFRA) using a bipolar format, and surveys conducted by the ONS themselves using a unipolar format (DEFRA, 2011).

In contrast, the dissatisfaction measures reported by Davern and Cummins did differ substantially between response formats. On the unipolar dissatisfaction scale, respondents reported dissatisfaction at around 30% of scale maximum - approximating the reciprocal mean of life satisfaction scores, and thus suggesting dissatisfaction is the mirror opposite of satisfaction (unipolar responses also indicated a strong negative correlation between satisfaction and dissatisfaction). The bipolar scale, on the other hand, mean dissatisfaction was around 65% of the scale maximum, which is difficult to interpret in the light of satisfaction results. The authors speculate that this difficulty with the bipolar dissatisfaction measure may arise from a positivity bias, which focuses respondent attention on the positive anchor of the bipolar measure. The results imply that bipolar scales may cause more problems for negative constructs. This requires further investigation.

Findings across both affective and evaluative measures suggest that respondents do not necessarily fully attend to or fully process scale anchors. On the one hand, this could imply that scale polarity doesn’t actually matter too much: even if a scale is constructed with a unipolar response format, respondents might tend to treat it as bipolar anyway. On the other hand, it introduces the obvious risk that with unipolar measures in particular, respondents may differ in how they interpret the measure (e.g. Schimmack et al., 2002). Meanwhile the work of Davern and Cummins indicates that the bipolar dissatisfaction scale might have confused respondents.

To reduce difficulties in scale interpretation, the polarity of the response format should be as clear as possible. One clue to scale polarity is the scale numbering adopted. Schwarz et al. (1991) found that an 11-point scale labelled -5 to +5 is more likely to be interpreted by respondents as being bipolar than one using positive numbers only. However, the work of Schimmack et al. and of Russell and Carroll suggests that the opposite is not true. Use of positive numbers alone (e.g. 0 to 11) is not sufficient to cue unipolarity in affect measures. Meanwhile, the bipolar dissatisfaction scale that appeared to confuse Davern and Cummins’ respondents already included -7 to +7 scale labels.

It has been suggested that one way to capture unipolar affective constructs could be to begin with a simple yes/no question about whether an emotion has been experienced. Both Russell and Carroll (1999) and Schimmack et al. (2002; Study 2) argue that the best way to convey unipolarity in affect measures is first to ask respondents whether or not they feel a particular emotion using a yes/no response format, and then ask them to rate the intensity of that emotion, if reported, on a numerical scale with the midpoint clearly labelled. This introduces the possible risk of information loss - in the sense that individuals who respond no on a binary measure may still have reported some very slight feelings on an intensity scale - and this requires investigation. Other risks associated with these 2-step “branching” questions are further discussed in the section that follows on the order and presentation of response categories (e.g. Pudney, 2010). One further alternative for shorter and less in-depth measures is to provide respondents with a list of emotions and ask a simple yes/no question about whether respondents experienced a lot of those emotions on the previous day. This approach has been adopted in the Gallup World Poll, although the assertion of Green, Goldman and Salovey (1993) that this could increase acquiescence should also be investigated. Dolnicar and Grnn (2009) meanwhile found that yes/no response formats are not subject to the same patterns of extreme and moderate responding that longer numerical scales can exhibit - thus, the risk of acquiescence might need to be traded off the risk of other forms of response bias.

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