Semantic Differential Test: What It Is And How It Is Used In Psychology

Semantic differential test

In psychological evaluation, subjective tests aim to analyze people’s personality to predict possible dysfunctions. In this article we will learn about one of them, Osgood et al.’s semantic differential test (1952, 1972).

This test has its theoretical basis in Osgood’s mediational theory (neo-behaviorist), according to which intermediate (covert) cognitive processes modulate the functional relationships between stimuli and responses.

Subjective tests: characteristics

The semantic differential test is classified as a subjective test. The objective of subjective tests is for the subject to describe, classify or rate himself, objects and people, or for people close to the subject to do the same with respect to him.

These types of tests are semi-structured voluntary (that is, the subject can falsify them) and not masked (the subject knows what is being evaluated).

Furthermore, these are non-standardized tests; that is to say, There are no established standards that allow the interpretation of the scores obtained in the test. In relation to this, there would only be two exceptions: the ACL (Gough’s Adjective Checklist) and the DACL (Lubin’s Adjective List), which are standardized subjective tests.

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

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Semantic differential test: what is it?

The semantic differential test It was developed by Charles Osgood, George Suci and Percy Tannenbaum in 1957. This test measures subjects’ responses to objects or semantic stimuli (known as “concepts”) through estimation scales defined by opposite bipolar adjectives (for example: generous/selfish, distrustful/naive, nervous/calm …

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

For its construction, concepts or semantic stimuli are selected through empirical or rational criteria. The test allows us to investigate the significance that the chosen concepts have for a subject or group of subjects.


The formats of the semantic differential test can be of various types.

For example, one could be the following: it would have as its header “CURRENT SELF”, and below it the antonym adjectives in an estimation scale format: here the subject must be placed between the adjectives depending on whether one or the other is more (increasing proximity to the adjective that you consider best defines you).

Another format would be the one that includes the antonym adjectives in the header, for example “CARIÑOSO-ARISCO” and below the people that the subject will evaluate: “father”, “mother”, “current self” and “partner”, for example.

That is to say, the subject can evaluate only himself, or evaluate more people (always according to your point of view).

How does it develop?

Let’s see in a little more detail how the test develops.

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A list of adjectives is proposed to the subject, which must relate to the proposed concepts. As we have already seen, adjectives are presented in a bipolar form, mediating between both extremes a series of intermediate values. For example, the pair “fair”https://Psychology For/”less fair” is presented, separated by a kind of graduated rule in which the subject must mark how they would place the concept in relation to both poles.

It is important to know that concepts of the “good/bad” type should not be contrasted since the semantic differential measurement scale is non-comparative, so the questions should always be bipolarized around the same concept.

Factors that saturate the test

The main interest of Osgood and his collaborators was to study the structure of the meaning of the 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. Evaluation

It is about the content that 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; big/small).

3. Activity

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

Error sources

There are a series of sources of error in the semantic differential test, coming from the subject or subjects evaluated. These errors are:

1. Social desirability

It is about the fact of want to be liked or give a good image, on the part of the subject; influences the evaluative factor.

2. Scalar format

The fact that the semantic differential test is based on estimates from scales makes subjects They may present certain response tendencies, due to the format of the test itself.

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Thus, it has been seen how subjects with a high intelligence quotient (IQ) tend to give more central responses on the scale; On the other hand, subjects with a low IQ tend to respond at the extremes. The same thing happens with depressed subjects (they give central responses) and anxious subjects (they give extreme responses).

Analysis of the information

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

1. Profile analysis

The subject and the opinions he himself gives about others (for example about his father and mother) are analyzed; allows you to compare the different scores (of the different subjects) with each other.

2. Distance analysis

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

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