Jonathan Dobres

crazy science fridays: neutrality

Zeldman has some interesting thoughts on the neutral option often seen in opinion scales:

Let users choose from five stars, and they nearly always pick three. Three is the little bear’s porridge, neither too hot nor too cold. Three is neutral—a safe place to hide. Even in the virtual world, where nothing more consequential is being asked than an opinion, many people would rather equivocate than commit.

He makes some great points, particularly in regards to using the neutral option as a way to avoid offending friends (think “Maybe” in eVite invitations). This is essentially a designer’s critique of the ubiquitous Likert scale, by far the most common type of questionnaire in social science research.

Back in junior high school we had a semester-long class on careers. The class feels like ancient history to me and I only remember two things about it. One is that our teacher had that Southern tendency to overemphasize the “Wh” sound. “Class, remember, whhhat you put down on the whhhite paper should match what you put down on the whhhorksheet.” The second is that a big part of this class involved the administration of an extensive career questionnaire, with scales and question clusters designed to place you at a particular point along eight different axes. Are you a people person? Do you like working with numbers? Creating artwork? Filing things? You get the idea.

It’s been a while, but I believe there were seven billion questions on this thing, all coded using the standard five point Likert paradigm. I remember that when our results came back, my report showed surprisingly few career suggestions, mostly, I was told, because I had picked the neutral option so often. Showing a definitive preference for very few of the questions, the computer didn’t know what to make of me.

The trick here is that neutral doesn’t always mean neutral. I was fourteen years old. Faced with a question like, “I would prefer working with the sick or infirm,” neutral really meant, “I’m fourteen and I don’t know anything about the world or what I want from it. I don’t know.” In a certain sense, I still don’t.

Consider the Sastisfaction with Life Scale. We use this one as part of our research at the hospital, and judging by the number of citations the scale receives in scholarly journals, we’re not the only ones. I like to think of it as a five question existential nightmare. How can you expect a person to grade a statement like, “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing,” on a five point agree/disagree continuum? Lots of people get thrown when I ask this in our interviews. After administering this scale over one hundred times, I have a hunch that neutral often means, “I don’t know how to answer that.”

I’d be very curious to see what happens when you delete the neutral option and replace it with, “I don’t know.” Maybe come up with two different variations. In one, the new option replaces neutral’s position. In the other, the new option is listed as a separate entity from the levels of agreement and disagreement. Absolute neutrality is a rarity in real life. Republican? Democrat? Maybe you really are one of those coveted undecided voters, but I’ll bet that if it came down to it, you’d admit to leaning ever so slightly one way or the other. Professing ignorance is qualitatively different from professing neutrality. People generally tend to love the latter and hate the former. Replacing the neutral with the unknown gives people a reason to commit instead of a place to hide.