A facilitator leads a group of participants to solutions that are created, understood, and accepted by all. Effective facilitation cannot be achieved without the role of people and social sciences. Understanding Likert scales as a viable technique is necessary to improve qualitative assessments, including risk assessments, condition assessments, and prioritization.
Likert scales were originally developed by Rensis Likert, who was concerned with measuring psychological attitudes and wished to do this in a “scientific” way. Specifically, he sought a method to produce attitude measures that could reasonably be interpreted as measurements on a proper metric scale, such as a thermometer.
Understanding Likert scales is the #1 thing that facilitators and technical experts get wrong about qualitative assessments.
Right Brain versus Left Brain
According to conventional wisdom, people tend to have a personality, thinking style, or way of doing things that is either right-brained or left-brained.
Those who are right-brained are supposed to be intuitive and creative free thinkers. They are “qualitative,” big-picture thinkers who experience the world in terms that are descriptive or subjective. For example, “The skies are gray and menacing; I wonder if it’s going to rain?”
Pearson versus Freud
Karl Pearson led the charge for scientific analysis and mathematical statistics in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Pearson is credited with creating the first university statistics program in history and a wide variety of analytical techniques, such as using moments in statistics (he borrowed the concept from physics), the histogram, the chi-squared test, p-values, and better systems of measurement. Galton and Gauss were among his contemporaries. Taylor, Shewhart, and Deming were among the followers of his quantitative methods.
During the same period, Sigmund Freud was the central figure in psychology and other social sciences. The rise of Pearsonian thinking conflicted with the clinical and observational methods used in the social sciences. Freud’s contemporaries, such as Thurstone, Spearman, and Likert, worked to create more quantitative methods in their fields of practice.
The debates still rage today, more than 100 years later. One example is a university-level, 20-chapter statistics book. Engineers, scientists, and finance majors are introduced to parametric statistics in the tradition of Pearson in the first 13 chapters. The back seven chapters are non-parametric (dimensionless distribution or richly skewed) statistics used by the social sciences. Students trained in the social sciences get their information in reverse order. The problem is that most university classes do not get much beyond the first half of their respective texts. Those in the physical sciences are trained in one way of analysis and those in the social sciences are trained in another.
Rensis Likert created his scales as part of his Ph.D. dissertation and published his work in 1932. Likert would go on to advance the field of measurement through his work at the Life Insurance Agency Management Association (LIAMA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center (SRC).
In addition to his scales, Likert is best known as the father of participatory management, or the practice of empowering members of a group, as an alternative to traditional chain-of-command (vertical) management structures.
Likert scales are five-point ordinal scales where participants select a label (or numerical value) that equates to an opinion or attitude. Labels are paired (i.e., agree-disagree, strongly agree-strongly disagree) symmetrically around a neutral center. Today, we see 5-, 7-, and 9-point versions of Likert scales in everything from customer surveys to risk assessments.
Interpreting Likert Scales
Likert concludes that opinions and social attitudes are best analyzed by “clustering” and warns of the need to “cut through the statistical confusion” created even in his time. These are the primary rules for interpreting and communicating ordinal data.
- the range with bar charts or box plots (not histograms)
- the central tendency by median and mode (not the mean or average)
- variability by inter‐quartile range (not the standard deviation)
Even better, use the label instead of the numbers. Instead of saying, “80 percent of respondents evaluated the likelihood of failure as a 4 or 5,” communicate the results by saying, “80 percent of responded that there was either a high or very high likelihood of failure.”
Always use the median for skewed data, which survey data should be considered by default. If 50 percent of the data was above 4 and 50 percent less than 4, then four (high likelihood) is the value to use and communicate. Remember that no one responded 4.2 or 3.8 when the choices were ordinal, whole numbers.
Using Interval Scales
Likert scales can be ordinal or interval. Interval scales use numbers where the magnitude of difference between each number is the same, but there is no absolute zero. When properly constructed and used, interval scales mimic continuous scales, and parametric statistics (like the mean and standard deviation) can be applied. However, this can be debatable, as can the respondents’ understanding. As Likert stated, there is a need “cut through the statistical confusion,” so sticking with ordinal number good practices is an advisable approach.
Facilitating with FINESSE
A facilitator leads a group of participants to solutions that are created, understood, and accepted by all. Effective facilitation cannot be achieved without the role of people and social sciences.
Understanding Likert scales as a viable technique is necessary to improve qualitative assessments, including risk assessments that use risk matrices, field condition assessments, and prioritization. Facilitators and technical experts are well-served to understand more than 100 years of debate on this topic.
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This article first appeared on Substack.