The examples thus far have labeled only the endpoints on the rating scale. Respondents decide the meaning of the response alternatives that are not labeled. This is a reasonable approach, and people are usually able to use such scales without difficulty. Sometimes researchers need to provide labels to more clearly define the meaning of each alternative. Here is a fairly standard alternative to the agree-disagree scale shown above:
This type of scale assumes that the middle alternative is a “neutral” point half-way between the endpoints. Sometimes, however, a perfectly balanced scale may not be possible or desirable. Consider a scale asking a college professor to rate a student for a job or graduate program. This particular scale asks for comparative ratings of students:
In comparison with other graduates, how would you rate this student’s potential for success?
Notice that most of the alternatives ask people to make a rating within the top 25% of students. This is done because students who apply for such programs tend to be very bright and motivated, and so professors rate them favorably. The wording of the alternatives attempts to force the raters to make finer distinctions among generally very good students.
Labeling alternatives is particularly interesting when asking about the frequency of a behavior. For example, you might ask, “How often do you exercise for at least 20 minutes?” What kind of scale should you use to let people answer this question? You could list (1) never, (2) rarely, (3) sometimes, (4) frequently. These terms convey your meaning but they are vague. Here is another set of alternatives with greater specificity (Schwarz, Knauper, Oyserman, & Stich, (2008):
Page 142A different scale might be:
Schwarz et al. (2008) call the first scale a high-frequency scale because most alternatives indicate a high frequency of exercise. The other scale is referred to as low frequency. Schwarz et al. point out that the labels should be chosen carefully because people may interpret the meaning of the scale differently, depending on the labels used. If you were actually asking the exercise question, you might decide on alternatives different from the ones described here. Moreover, your choice should be influenced by factors such as the population you are studying. If you are studying people who generally exercise a lot, you will be more likely to use a higher-frequency scale than you would if you were studying people who generally do not exercise a great deal.