Semantic differential

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The semantic differential or differential (also polarity or polarity profile) is a procedure that was developed in psychology in order to find out which ideas people associate with certain concepts, facts or plans.

It does not use direct questions such as “What do you think of ...?” And “What do you think of ...?”. Instead, the people are asked indirectly by giving them the opportunity to say how strongly they B. associate the term "loneliness" (or another test unit) with certain characteristics. They are given a number of pairs of traits such as “large - small” or “strong - weak” and can indicate whether they associate “loneliness” with “large” or “small” and to what extent they do this. Although the connection between these properties and the terms questioned (test units) is often not recognized from the outset, such surveys very often produce consistent results. Compared to direct interviews, the procedure should have the advantage that the results of interviews can be better compared with one another and are less influenced by what the respondents assess as the expected answer.

History and process

In attitude research, a semantic differential is a method for the quantitative analysis of affective word meanings . It was developed by Charles E. Osgood and co-workers (Osgood, Suci and Tannenbaum 1957) and slightly varied in the German-speaking area by Peter Hofstätter in the form of the polarity profile ; it combines the “managed association” with the “rating”.

In this procedure, the test person assesses their affective attitude to terms and ideas on a mostly seven-point scale , at the end of which bipolar association terms such as “hot / cold” or “slow / fast” are given. The connection of the individual evaluations creates a polarity profile, which is evaluated with the help of the calculation of mean value and degree of dispersion . With the method of correlation calculation and principal component analysis, there are few basic dimensions (so-called factors) on which all these ratings are based. Osgood and colleagues were able to use twenty prototypical terms that occur in all languages ​​known at the time (including moon, sun, father and mother) to show that three factors across cultures are sufficient to describe the affective part of the word meaning.

Factors or dimensions

The valence dimension measures the hedonic quality of a connotation : Does a term trigger a good, pleasant, desirable feeling or is it rather bad, uncomfortable and repulsive?

The power dimension means the power or strength that a term contains: Does something feel big, powerful and dominant, or rather small, weak and manageable?

The activation dimension describes the level of activity that is associated with a term: some things feel dynamic, loud and aroused, while others feel more calm, quiet and passive.

These three dimensions seem to form a kind of “socio-emotional basic equipment” of people, regardless of their language and culture: Emotions can also be represented in them - for example, “fear” is negative (valence), weak (potency) and aroused (Activation) emotion, while "contentment" is positive, powerful and calm.

The semantic differential in various sciences

In psychology, for example, the semantic differential is used in the field of client-centered psychotherapy or talk therapy to capture the self and its discrepancy to the ideal self. Further areas of application of the semantic differential are market research , media analysis and social research , especially with regard to brands, products, companies and people whose image is to be analyzed. Merten (1995) offers a description and criticism.

In linguistics , the semantic differential can be used to research connotations , i.e. secondary meanings of words, and in this context it is also dealt with in several introductions to linguistics. The procedure also enables intercultural comparisons, so that one can see whether people from different regions of the world associate the same or different attitudes with one term. Harro Gross demonstrates this for the word "revolution" using the example of German and Chinese students.

In literary studies ( quantitative literary studies ) the semantic differential can be used to research literary evaluations by test subjects and thus to objectify them.


  • Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.) With the collaboration of Hartmut Lauffer: Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. 4th, revised and bibliographically supplemented edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-520-45204-7 .
  • Peter R. Hofstätter : Group dynamics. Critique of mass psychology . Viewed and exp. New edition. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1971. (first edition 1957) ISBN 3-499-55038-5 .
  • Hans Hörmann : Psychology of language. 2nd, revised edition. Springer, Berlin / Heidelberg / New York 1977. pp. 114ff. ISBN 3-540-08174-7 .
  • Charles E. Osgood: Focus on Meaning. Vol. 1: Explorations in Semantic Space. Mouton, The Hague / Paris 1976. ISBN 90-279-3114-3 .
  • Charles E. Osgood, GJ Suci, PH Tannenbaum: The Measurement of Meaning . Urbana 1957.

Individual evidence

  1. See Hofstätter, 1957.
  2. ^ Gustav H. Blanke: Introduction to semantic analysis. Hueber, Munich 1973. pp. 135-137.
  3. ^ Klaus Merten : content analysis. Introduction to theory, method and practice. 2nd, improved edition. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1995. pp. 247ff. ISBN 3-531-11442-5
  4. ^ Bernhard Imhasly, Bernhard Marfurt, Paul Portmann: Concepts of Linguistics. An introduction. Athenaion, Wiesbaden 1979. pp. 194-196. ISBN 3-7997-0718-2 ; David Crystal: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Translation and editing of the German edition by Stefan Röhrich, Ariane Böckler and Manfred Jansen. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt / New York 1993. p. 103. ISBN 3-593-34824-1
  5. Harro Gross: Introduction to German Linguistics. 3rd, revised. and exp. Revised edition by Klaus Fischer. iudicium, Munich 1998. p. 116 ISBN 3-89129-240-6
  6. ^ Bernd Spillner: Linguistics and literary studies. Style research, rhetoric, text linguistics. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart a. a. 1974. pp. 93-95. ISBN 3-17-001734-9

Web links

Wiktionary: semantic differential  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations