2011. Vol. 2, No. 1, 49-52
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.21008
Strong Words or Moderate Words: A Comparison of the
Reliability and Validity of Responses
on Attitude Scales
Bruce B. Frey, Lisa M. Edwards
Department of Psychology and Research in Education School of
Education University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA;
Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology, Marquette University, Milwaukee, USA.
Received July 1st, 2010; revised November 28th, 2010; accepted December 10th, 2010.
A common assumption in attitude measurement is that items should be composed of strongly worded statements.
The presumed benefit of strongly worded statements is that they produce more reliable and valid scores than
statements with moderate or weak wording. This study tested this assumption using commonly accepted criteria
for reliability and validity. Two forms of attitude scales were created - a strongly worded form and a moderately
worded form - measuring two attitude objects - attitude towards animal experimentation and attitude towards
going to the movies. Different formats were randomly administered to samples of graduate students. There was
no superiority found for strongly worded statements over moderately worded statements. The only statistically
significant difference was found between one pair of validity coefficients (r = 0.69; r = 0.15; Z = 2.60, p ≤ 0.01)
and that was in the direction opposite from expected, favoring moderately worded items over strongly worded
items (total scores correlated with a general behavioral item).
Keywords: Attitude Scales, Reliabilty, Validity
Teachers of psychological measurement, as well as authors
of textbooks in these areas, often make recommendations as to
the type of wording that is best when composing items for atti-
tude scales (Fink, 1995; Fowler, 1995; Leedy, 1997; Mangione,
1995; Shuman & Presser, 1981). One rule-of-thumb that seems
to have arisen is that attitude scales made of strongly worded
statements - “I love”, “I hate”, “always” - will produce more
reliable and valid scores than scales made of moderately
worded statements - “I like”, “I dislike”, “sometimes”. Posi-
tions taken in the literature which suggest that strongly-worded
statements are best include advice to use precise wording and
avoid potentially vague adverbs (Bourque & Fielder, 1995),
recommendations to choose adverbs that have agreed upon
meaning (Best & Kahn, 1989), and suggestions to use clearly
favorable or clearly unfavorable wording (Henerson, Morris, &
In our experience, it is sometimes assumed that strongly
worded statements will elicit more valid or reliable responses.
This is certainly not an unreasonable assumption. Along with
textbook authors and instructors providing guidelines consistent
with this assumption, common sense supports this view as well.
Some reasonable beliefs which support the assumption include:
1. Strong statements are more easily understood. At the
least, there is greater agreement across respondents as to
the meaning of strong statements. We all may agree on
what “I hate exercise” means, but not agree about what
“I dislike exercise” means.
2. There is more clarity about what specific answer options
like “strongly agree” mean when responding to a strong
statement than when responding to a moderate statement.
For example, what does it mean to strongly agree that
you “sort of like cotton candy?” Furthermore, imagine
that you love cotton candy. Should you strongly disagree
with the statement? Moderately disagree? Moderately
agree? Strongly agree?
3. Strongly worded statements more easily “awaken” pre-
viously unperceived feelings.
4. Strong statements create greater variability in responses
and greater variability promotes higher reliability.
Regardless of the implicit or explicit hypotheses as to why
wording makes a difference, few studies have tested the basic
assumption that the strength of wording in attitude statements
does, in practice, make a difference. We were able to locate
studies examining the psychometric effects of negative or posi-
tive wording in stems or answer options (Barnette, 2000; Her-
che & Engelland, 1996; Schmitt & Stuits, 1985; Wong, Rind-
fleisch, & Burroughs, 2003), as well as the effects of Likert or
Thurstone or other scaling methods (Roberts, Laughlin &
Wedell, 1999; Seiler & Hough, 1970). No studies, however,
were found that tested the particular view that strongly worded
attitude statements are superior. The present study explores
whether the strength of attitude statements affects the reliability
or validity of the scores on attitude scales.
The most common methods of measuring attitude require
that subjects agree or disagree with statements that reflect a
B. B. FREY ET AL.
particular attitude. A summing of those responses produces a
total score which is meant to reflect an attitude. Historically,
two formats - one proposed by Likert (1932) and one proposed
by Thurstone (1928) have been most commonly used. Among
more recent developments is Andrich’s “unfolding” perspective
(Andrich, 1996; Andrich & Styles, 1998) which addresses the
typically poor relationship between measured attitude and be-
havior, and other theoretical validity problems, by considering
whether traditional attitude measurement methods do a poor job
of precisely placing individuals on an attitude continuum.
As the two most popular procedures, Likert and Thurstone
methods have often been compared (Roberts, Laughlin & We-
dell, 1999; Ferguson, 1941) and a summary of their strengths
and weaknesses has found that the Likert method tends to be
more reliable and can efficiently produce reliable scores using
fewer items (Seiler & Hough, 1970). For these reasons, and,
undoubtedly, because it requires fewer steps to develop scales,
Likert is an extremely common attitude measurement format,
and, consequently, was the format chosen for this study. In our
experience, the Likert-type structure for attitude measurement
is ubiquitous and the predominate approach.
Classical test theory presents reliability as a function of the
proportion of true score variance to observed score variance
(Crocker & Algina, 1986). A variety of numbers can be calcu-
lated which represent reliability of scores. When scales are
intended to measure a single dimension, internal consistency in
responses across items, as reflected by an index such as Cron-
bach’s coefficient alpha, is an appropriate measure of reliability
(Cronbach, 1951). Because Likert-type scales are meant to
reflect a single dimension (Likert, 1932), coefficient alphas of
two Likert scales can be compared in order to test hypotheses
that one scale is more reliable than the other. An additional
indicator of reliability, both theoretically and in calculating
statistics to represent reliability, is the overall variability of the
scores from a scale. Though it does not provide a scaled index
of reliability, greater variability increases the likelihood of ob-
served scores matching true scores (its theoretical benefit), and
often results in larger coefficient alphas and correlations (its
empirical benefit). Variance, then, can be compared between
two similar scales as an additional indication of which scale is
The validity of unidimensional attitude scales can be tested
through a variety of methods. One way to produce construct
evidence of validity for such scales’ scores is to correlate scores
on the scale in question with scores on some other attitude scale
designed to measure the same or similar attitude. One could
also compare professed attitude with some behavior which
might reasonably be expected to result from the attitude. The
former method usually results in a stronger relationship than the
latter, but both are typically acceptable as sources of validity
evidence for attitude scales. Though neither method is enough
to establish validity for an attitude scale, the present study at-
tempts only to compare these correlations to see if there is any
evidence that one scale is “more valid” than another, not estab-
lish the independent validity of the scales’ scores. Because these
procedures are commonly used in published research and taught
in measurement courses as evidence of validity, they were cho-
sen for the study as appropriate methods for comparison.
The subjects were 65 schools of education graduate students
at a large Midwestern university who were 60% female with a
mean age of 30. The judges used during the item categorization
process were an additional 20 graduate students from the
Two sets of 33 attitude statements were created. One set re-
flected attitude towards a light-hearted topic, “Going to the
Movies”. The other set reflected attitude towards a more serious
topic, “Medical Experiments on Animals”. These two topics
were chosen because they represent two common uses of atti-
tude scaling in social sciences - research on controversial issues
and measurement of consumer or participant preferences.
Statements were written to include a variety of attitude
strengths and directions.
Two scales were produced for each of the two topics. One
scale on each topic measured attitude by using strongly worded
items while the other scale used moderately worded items. To
identify items which were “strongly worded” and items which
were “moderately worded”, the Thurstone method was used
(Thurstone, 1928). The Thurstone methodology was used
here only to identify which items were strongly worded and
which were moderately worded. All the attitude measures that
were eventually produced followed Likert scaling and scoring
methods. The Thurstone procedure provides all statements to a
group of judges. Judges sort items into different piles, or pro-
vide ratings, based on the statements’ perceived attitude
strength and direction. An 11-point scale is used. The strongest
negative statements receive 1’s and the strongest positive
statements receive 11’s. Statements perceived as neutral are
given a 6. Judges are asked to imagine equal intervals between
their ratings and may place as many statements as they wish
under any rating. Judges are asked to ignore their own personal
feelings towards the attitude object and rate items only based on
their interpretation of the attitudinal strength of the wording.
Each item’s “pile” or rating is averaged across judges and this
provides a measure of strength for each item.
For each topic, the “strong” form was composed of the 10
items with strength ratings closest to 1 or 11, and the “moder-
ate” form was composed of the ten items with ratings closest to
4 or 8. The items for all scales and their Thurstone ratings are
presented in Table 1. Answer options for the statements were
presented Likert-style with 5 options, ranging from 1 = strongly
disagree to 5 = strongly agree.
In order to compare validity, some potentially convergent
data had to be created. Two additional items were added to each
form: A 9-point answer option statement of general positive or
negative attitude towards the attitude object and a behavioral
item asking, depending on the object, how often the respondent
had gone to the movies in the last year or how often the re-
spondent had expressed an opinion against animal experimenta-
tion in the last year.
B. B. FREY ET AL. 51
65 participants were randomly assigned to respond to one of
the two types of scales - strong or moderate. The random as-
signment of participants was chosen to provide some control of
Scales, items and Thurstone weightings.
Going to the Movies Scale - Strongly Worded Items
1.0 There is nothing I hate more than going to the movies
1.4 Going to the movies is something I really hate to do
1.7 Some of my worst times have been watching a movie in a
1.7 I hate going to the movies
9.5 Watching movies on the big screen is among my favorite
9.5 Some of my best times have been watching a good movie
in a nice theater
9.6 I love going to the movies
10.0 Going to the movies is something I really love to do
10.3 There is nothing more fun than going to the movies
10.3 Nothing’s better than a good movie at the theater
Going to the Movies Scale - Moderately Worded Items
3.5 Sitting in a theater with other people and watching a mov-
ie can be annoying
3.5 Watching movies on the big screen is overrated
4.2 Movie ticket prices are too expensive
4.2 Other people are distracting at the movies
4.2 Going to a movie theater can be boring
7.7 Going to the movies is something I like to do
7.8 I enjoy the experience of going to the movies
8.1 I look forward to seeing a movie at a theater
8.1 I am someone who enjoys going to the movies
8.3 I like going to the movies
Animal Experimentation Scale - Strongly Worded Items
1.6 Nothing humans do is worse than experimenting on ani-
1.9 Experimenting on animals is just plain wrong
2.1 I am absolutely opposed to experimenting on animals
2.2 It is not necessary to torture animals just to help advance
2.3 It is absurd that an animal must be harmed for the ad-
vancement of science
2.5 Animal experimentation is cruel
2.7 I would not use a drug that had been tested on animals
2.8 I oppose animal experimentation
3.0 I couldn’t buy a product that had been tested on animals
9.0 It is okay to experiment on monkeys, even if they get hurt
Animal Experimentation Scale - Moderately Worded Items
3.5 There is no need to experiment on animals
3.9 I feel badly about animal experimentation
7.6 Animal experimentation is not the same as torture
7.8 I love animals, but I think animal experimentation is nec-
7.9 Sometimes it is necessary to experiment on animals
8.2 It is okay to experiment on rats
8.3 It is okay to experiment on chimpanzees
8.4 I would work for a company that experimented on animals
8.5 Medical science wouldn’t be as advanced as it is without
8.5 It is okay to experiment on animals if it will help human
potentially confounding variables. This resulted in 32 partici-
pants responding to the strong forms and 33 responding to the
moderate forms. All participants responded to both attitude
Item scores were reversed where appropriate, and total
scores were produced. To compare reliability, coefficient
alphas with associated confidence intervals (Feldt, Woodruff,
& Slaih, 1987) were calculated for all four scales, and scale
variances were computed. To compare validity, total scale
scores were correlated with scores from the related general
attitude item and with scores from the related behavior item.
The reliability and validity was compared between the two
forms - strong vs. moderate wording. It is important to em-
phasize that the data isn’t used here to argue whether any
particular scale’s scores were or were not reliable or valid by
some standard; rather, data was used to see if reliability and
validity values differed between formats.
The reliability and validity measures for both the strongly -
worded and moderately-worded forms of the two scales are
presented in Table 2. In comparing reliability values between
forms, there were no significant differences in coefficient alpha
or variance. In comparing validity coefficients between forms,
only one significant difference between correlation coefficients
was found. The strong form of the Movies scale correlated .15
with movie going behavior while the moderate form corre-
lated .69 with movie going behavior. The general absence of
any differences in correlations across the different forms is
consistent with a conclusion of similar levels of validity be-
tween the two approaches. The finding of almost equal coeffi-
cient alphas across the approaches is supportive of a conclusion
that both approaches have equal reliability.
The belief that strongly worded attitude statements make a
more reliable scale is not supported by this study. The coeffi-
cient alphas are almost exactly the same for both forms of the
attitude scales and there is no statistical difference in variability
for either of the two pairs of forms. This study also found no
support for the belief that validity will be higher for scales
made of strongly worded attitude statements. With one excep-
tion, the validity coefficients were similar for the two scale
formats (both statistically and interpretationally). Even the one
exception does not support the belief that strong statements lead
to higher validity because the larger validity coefficient was
found between the moderate scale and behavior, not between
the stronger scale and behavior.
There are limitations on the generalizability of the conclu-
sions of this study. We included only two measurement objects,
and used relatively narrow methods of indexing validity and
reliability. However, the methods used are commonly provided
in the literature as reliability and validity evidence and would
seem appropriate for testing common measurement assump-
tions, the purpose of this study. Further, the sample sizes of a
little more than 30 per group, though reasonable for demon-
strating the existence of differences between populations, does
not provide enough power to conclusively demonstrate the
B. B. FREY ET AL.
Reliability and validity evidence for strong and moderate attitude
Going to the Movies
Strongly Worded Items 0.87
(0.79-0.83) 31.14 0.57 0.15*
(0.79-0.83) 34.22 0.66 0.69*
Strongly Worded Items 0.96
(0.94-0.98) 85.01 -0.83 0.49
(0.89-0.96) 54.17 -0.81 0.55
Note: N = 32 for the moderately worded form and N = 33 for the strongly worded
form. *These two correlations were significantly different (Z = 2.60, p < .01).
absence of a difference. Table 2 provides confidence intervals
for the coefficient alphas, which is recommended when making
inferences using small samples.
This study sought to find evidence that strongly worded
scales result in scores more reliable or more valid than similar
scales which use moderate wording. Using common reliability
and validity investigational methods across two different types
of topics, no evidence was found for this assumption. The as-
sumption may be wrong. The strongly worded attitude state-
ments in this study did not produce scales resulting in scores
more reliable or valid than scores from scales constructed of
moderately worded statements.
There may be extra-psychometric reasons for continuing with
the practice of choosing extreme wording for attitude items. For
example, it still makes sense that strongly-worded statements
are less confusing, which theoretically should strengthen validity,
even if the benefit does not appear under the somewhat pedes-
trian methods for investigating validity used here. We agree
with Millman and Greene (Millman & Greene, 1989) that, in
measurement, some rules “make sense regardless of the out-
come of empirical studies on the effect of violating that rule” (p.
353). This study fails to provide evidence, however, that tradi-
tional indices of reliability and validity of attitude scales are
made stronger by making the words stronger.
More studies with larger samples across a greater variety of
formats and topics would be necessary before one could be sure
that it makes no difference whether statements are strong or
moderate. It remains, though, to be seen if any evidence can be
produced to support the common suggestion that one should
word these statements using superlatives or phrases reflecting
extreme affect or emotion.
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