Proof of the semantic differential: what it is and how it is used in psychology

In psychological assessment, subjective tests aim to analyze the personality of people to predict possible dysfunctions. In this article we will get to know one of them, the semantic differential test of Osgood and his collaborators (1952, 1972).

This test finds its theoretical basis in Osgood’s mediation theory (neo-behavioral), according to which intermediate (hidden) cognitive processes modulate the functional relationships between stimuli and responses.

    Subjective tests: characteristics

    The semantic differential test is classified as a subjective test. Subjective tests are intended for the subject to describe, classify or qualify himself, objects and people, or for people close to the subject to do the same for him.

    These types of tests are semi-structured, Voluntary (that is, the subject can falsify them) and unmasked (the subject knows what is being evaluated).

    Moreover, these are untyped tests; in other words that is to say, there are no established rules for interpreting the scores obtained in the test. Compared to this, there would be only two exceptions: the ACL (Gough Adjective Checklist) and the DACL (Lubin Adjective List), which are typified subjective tests.

    From the subjective tests, a quantitative or qualitative analysis of the data can be performed. Their origin lies in phenomenological and cognitive theoretical approaches, and they are widely used in cognitive-constructivist models.

    Proof of the semantic differential: what is it?

    The semantic differential test was produced by Charles Osgood, George Suci and Percy Tannenbaum in 1957. This test measures subjects’ responses to semantic objects or stimuli (called “concepts”) through rating scales defined by opposing bipolar adjectives (eg, generous / selfish, suspicious / naive, nervous / calm …

    The authors argue that a concept acquires meaning when a sign (a word) can elicit the response associated with the object it represents; in other words that is to say, the subject reacts to the symbolized object.

    For its construction, semantic concepts or stimuli are selected according to empirical or rational criteria. The test allows us to study the meaning of concepts chosen by a subject or a group of subjects.

      the formats

      There are several types of semantic differential test formats.

      For example, one could be the following one: it would have as heading “I CURRENT I”, and under the antonyms adjectives in the format scale of estimation: here the subject must be placed between the adjectives, Whatever the more one or the other (increasing the proximity to the adjective you consider best defines it).

      Another format would be the one included in the header of antonymous adjectives, for example “AFFECTIVE-rough” and under the people the subject will evaluate: “father”, “mother”, “current self” and “partner”, for example example.

      In other words, that is to say subject can only rate himself or rate more people (Always according to your point of view).

      How is it evolving?

      Let’s take a closer look at how the test works.

      A list of adjectives is proposed in the subject, which must relate to the proposed concepts. As we have seen, adjectives are presented in bipolar form, intervening between the two extremes a series of intermediate values. For example, the couple “fair” / “less fair” is presented, separated by a sort of graduated rule in which the subject must mark how he would place the concept in relation to the two poles.

      It is important to know that the concepts of type “good / bad” should not be contrasted because the scale of measurement of the semantic differential is not comparative, therefore the questions around bipolarity must always be the same concept.

      Factors in which the test saturates

      The main interest of Osgood and his collaborators was to study the meaning structure of subjects. The authors concluded that such meaning has three dimensions: evaluation, power and activity.

      Thus, the estimation scales or bipolar adjectives of the semantic differential test, saturate these three dimensions or factors:

      1. Assessment

      It is the content that it has evaluative connotations (For example: good / bad; beautiful / ugly).

      2. Power

      It consists of all that content that expresses power or strength (For example: strong / weak; large / small).

      3. Activity

      Refers to active content, for example slow / fast or passive / active.

      Sources of error

      There are a number of sources of error in the semantic differential test, arising from the subject (s) being assessed. These errors are:

      1. Social desirability

      This is the fact want to please or give a good image, By the subject; influences the evaluative factor.

      2. Scalar format

      The fact that the semantic differential test is based on estimates from scales causes subjects they may exhibit certain response trends, depending on the same test format.

      Thus, we have seen how subjects with a high IQ tend to give more central responses on the scale; on the other hand, subjects with a low CI tend to respond to extremes. The same goes for depressed subjects (they give central responses) and anxious subjects (they give extreme responses).

      Analysis of information

      Two types of analysis can be performed in the semantic differential test:

      1. Profile analysis

      He analyzes the subject and the opinions he gives himself on others (for example on his father and his mother); allows you to compare different scores (From different subjects) to each other.

      2. Distance analysis

      In this case, the subject is analyzed at two different times (“before and after”), although it may include more time points. In other words, it allows you to compare the subject’s responses over time and observe how they have evolved in each of the bipolar adjectives.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Cohen, RJ, Swerdlik, ME (2002). Psychological tests and evaluation. McGraw-Hill. Madrid.
      • Fernández-Ballesteros, R. (2005). Introduction to psychological assessment I and II. Ed. Pyramid. Madrid.
      • Fernández-Ballesteros, R. (2011) Psychological assessment. Concepts, methods and case studies. Ed. Pyramid. Madrid.

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