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Get off the fence! – A guide to using neutral options in question design

By June 27, 2016 No Comments

We’ve received a number of questions recently on whether or not to include a “neutral” option when designing survey questions. On the face of it, it seems simple. People don’t always have an answer or a firm stance towards a particular issue. As you’ll see it is not always this straightforward so we’ve decided to take a closer look at the arguments for and against. Read on to see what we found!

Firstly, what is a neutral/midpoint option?

A basic rule of thumb is if you have an odd number of choices to your question you have built a fence to sit on (neutral option). If you have an even number of options, there is no neutral option available to the respondent.

Test_survey_-_Builder_-_BuildNeutral Option – In a Nutshell

Key Reasons To Include Neutral

  1. More intuitive
  2. Gives people the option if they really don’t know or are truly neutral
  3. Reduces response fatigue
  4. Increases reliability and validity

Key Reasons Exclude Include Neutral

  1. Reduces “fence sitters”
  2. Forces people to engage with the material, think about their response and take a position
  3. Increases reliability and validity

You may have noticed that ‘Increases reliability and validity’ on each list is the same? This is because the topic highly dependent on the situation and context of the survey.

The Deeper View

Research has found that the reason people choose a neutral response depends on the context and the question. Here are three reasons people may choose the middle ground that may affect your research.

 Why on the Fence?

  1. Too much effort – People tend to avoid cognitive effort and simply pick a satisfactory answer. Otherwise, they would need to interpret the question, recall related facts and memories, form an opinion and then choose the best option. This takes effort, especially with public matters.
  2. Mixed feelings – People often have feelings both for and against a topic. Sometimes they don’t quite understand why. They choose neutral, so they don’t have to confront this conflict.
  3. It’s cool – You don’t want to be “that guy” or the “complainer”, so you choose what you think others would prefer. The safe, socially desirable option.

Other Factors

  1. The more options you have, the less the midpoint is selected. Research suggests between 5 and 11 is optimal.
  2. People are more likely to choose the middle response if it is explicitly offered to them in the question or mentioned in the brief.
  3. Neutral doesn’t matter as much if items are summed, averaged or combined, and if relative comparisons are used.
  4. Removing neutral is appropriate if the question is seeking their explicit opinion on alternatives.
  5. Removing neutral may increase or decrease the positivity of the overall result.
  6. Adding slightly/somewhat to labels reduces the number of midpoint selections.

So what should you do?

Generally, there is relevant information provided from ‘neutral’ opinions and although people have differing reasons for sitting on the fence, forcing them to take a position on a given topic outweighs the benefits of receiving the neutral responses.

Our approach is to include a neutral option in the survey, but report data with it included AND excluded. This way we get a clear picture of the true opinions but also a picture of how many neutrals there are.

However, we believe that it is context dependent, and we generally consider each question/project individually to ensure the best most reliable outcome is reached.