Semantic Differential

The semantic differential is a technique to measure the meaning of concepts, opinions and attitudes. Although meaning can be viewed and interpreted from various perspectives (linguistic meaning, sociological meaning, relational meaning), the semantic differential explicitly focuses on the observation and measurement of the psychological meaning of concepts. This meaning concerns a person’s subjective perception of and affective reactions to a stimulus. The stimulus itself, also known as concept, in a written form can either be a noun, verb or a noun phrase.

To measure the meaning of the concept, the semantic differential uses a list of bipolar scales. Here, bipolar refers to the use of a pair of antonyms, i.e., two scale anchors that are opposite in meaning. In their simplest form, each of the bipolar scales that make up a semantic differential merely consists of this antonym pair, which are usually two adjectives (e.g., difficult - easy; complex - simple; constrained - free).

In practice, however, bipolar scales in this format may not be sufficiently descriptive for rather complex concepts. Instead, researchers may develop more elaborate bipolar scales by combining the two antonyms with several other words such as nouns and verbs to formulate contrasting phrases, in which the antonyms still remain the only two words that are opposite in meaning (e.g., difficult to use website – easy to use website; complex interface – simple interface)

Both theory and empiricism support the adoption of the semantic differential. Theory presents the semantic differential as one of the most appropriate techniques to assess the intensity and direction of the meaning of concepts in general, and of complex and multidimensional concepts in particular.