Mark Hammer

I’ve had the benefit of doing survey work with seniors, and I can tell you that there are plenty of questions where, the longer you’ve lived and the more you’ve been around the block, the easier it is to generate pros and cons about something, rather than just pros or cons. Them folks are “grey” for a reason. So even when the material is not implicitly contentious or divisive (to use David’s descriptor), there is a strong desire on the part of the respondent to provide an equivocal “opinion”, and respondents simply resent that you haven’t given them that opportunity.

But let us make an important distinction between knowing something about respondents, and managerial thinking. If we are expressly interested in the respondents themselves, then neutral responses, and responses just one side or the other of the midpoint on a 9-pt Likert scale are of interest to us. Management, on the other hand, wants data that allows them to make a decision about what I should do now (or start planning to do) about this. Which means they want survey results that help them flag problems, and identify what doesn’t demand attention at the moment. And to serve that particular master, there have to be clearcut happy/unhappy negative/positive data arising, which is why Ben is getting a “nudge from upstairs” to eliminate the neutral option. So the purpose of the survey data directs one towards a given approach to scale selection. Most of our formal training is really with respect to a different purpose (academic inquiry) so we never receive training in how to serve the other purposes.

Are neutral responses “lazy”? Well, they can be, in the same way that “Other, please specify” at the end of a list is usually a license for respondents not to read the rest of the list (leaving the investigator with the burden of recoding all those “others” into valid responses on the existing list). But it CAN be the case that a respondent really doesn’t have anything to say about a given area. That’s reality, and as a survey designer you’d like to know that the respondent has seen the question and not inadvertently skipped over it.

Case in point. When our younger son was in kindergarten, we get a request from the Dept. of Education to complete a parent survey. The survey starts by asking what grade the child is in (we had a kid in grade 9 at the same time, but I elected to answer on behalf of the younger one). It then goes on to ask me about how satisfied I was with the curriculum my child was receiving. “Wait, they have curriculum in kindergarten?”, I thought, “I didn’t know that.”. The survey insisted on an opinion, did not provide a don’t know or neutral option, and required that I answer that item before proceeding to the next one. Rather than lie, and unable to answer any other questions, I bailed on the survey. You probably want to avoid that sort of scenario.