Skip to content
Image for Pro Tip Series 24 - Question Scales Part 1 - Should I use an even or odd number of response options?

Question Scales Part 1: Should I use an even or odd number of response options?

The choice of whether to use an odd or even number of options in your response scales for questions on opinion mostly comes down to whether a “neutral” or “middle” response is desired or required.  

… and we are going to go ahead and state right out front that we avoid odd scales (with a neutral response) on questions around opinions at all costs.

Why? (read on)

Before we get started – we’re talking about scales here

The topic for this particular post is the number of response options you should have in your “Likert” or “contiguous” scales

Likert or contiguous scales are ones that run in even increments from one extreme to the other. An example would be “Strongly agree” on one end through to “Strongly disagree” on the other, with versions of lesser agreement or disagreement in the middle.  We ourselves almost always use response scales of:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Slightly agree
  • Slightly disagree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

What we are NOT addressing here is whether to allow for “N/A” and “Don’t know” in your options – and we will be talking about that in the next post “Question Scales Part 2: Should I allow for “N/A” or “I don’t Know” in the response options?“. (Stay tuned.)

Are you asking for an opinion or addressing a fact?

This is the first item to consider and will make a big different on which way to go:

  • Opinion examples: (Scale: Strongly Agree … Strongly Disagree)
    • “My manager cares about my opinions.”
    • “I like the band Limp Bizkit.”
  • Fact examples:
    • “My manager asks for my opinion” (Scale: Constantly … Never)
    • “I know who Limp Bizkit is.” (Scale: I Really Do … I Really Don’t)

In the first (on opinion), one could theoretically be completely neutral on each – though honestly we just don’t believe you.

In the second though (on fact), “neutral” is meaningless as there is no “central point”. So for fact-related questions the choice of an odd or even number of options is immaterial.  Re the actual number of options you’ll want though, we’ll be addressing that later in “Question Scales Part 3: How many response options should I have, and what is a Just Noticeable Difference? (JND)“.

So why do people respond with “Neutral” 

In truth there are very few instances where a truly neutral response is valid, and most of the time a response of “neutral” REALLY means: 
  1. I don’t understand what you’re talking about. (i.e. the question is not worded well.)
  2. This is not applicable to me. (Should be fixed with a filter question or N/A option.)
  3. I don’t care, or I don’t want to think about it too much as I want to get this survey done and over with ASAP so I can go home. (What can you do? … but as a response, you don’t want this in your data as it just fuzzes up the results.)
  4. I don’t know the answer. (Only applicable to “fact” questions in which case you would fix this with a very selective use of the “I Don’t Know” option. More on that in the next post.)
  5. I truly don’t know how I feel about this one way or the other. (Only applicable to “opinion” questions.) 

 Of all of these, only the last (#6) is really valid for our discussion, and even then, when is someone’s opinion TRULY neutral?

It’s all about the selective use of “forced choice” on opinion

Obviously an odd number of responses allows from a middle or “neutral” option; whereas an even number results in a “forced choice” in one direction or the other, even if it’s to a very small degree.

And the later is what we prefer – no matter how small that increment between positive and negative is.

The reason? As mentioned above the only valid use of “Neutral” would be when a respondent truly is exactly neutral in their opinion – which in our experience pretty much never happens. 

The other side of that coin is that by having a “neutral” you are now providing an “easy out” for the people in #3, where they just don’t want to take the time to think about it.

In other words the response is almost always and incorrect reflection of their actual opinion.

In my experience of human nature, and after running surveys for 30 plus years, (supported luckily for me by a substantial amount of research) – here’s the thing …

If provided with the “forced choice” of having to select one or the other side of neutral, positive or negative, people are generally less willing to straight out “lie” about their opinion (by then randomly choosing one side or the other), and are more likely to take the time to provide a more accurate and true response.

And while you’re thinking it; yes they could just skip the question altogether (if this is allowed) – which we would FAR prefer to an incorrect answer.

(Our thoughts on making questions “required” FYI are in Pro Tip Series 4 – Should I make some or all of the questions “required”? )

To recap

  1. If you’re asking for opinion, use an even number of options in your response scale to create a “forced choice“.
  2. If you’re asking for a response regarding fact, odd or even doesn’t matter as there is no “neutral”.

Hope this was of help, but as always give us a shout if you would like to discuss!

Next up – the second in our 3-part series on question scales: Question Scales Part 2: Should I allow for “N/A” or “I don’t Know” in the response options?

Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested in discussing a survey for your organization call us at 1-604-219-7876, email us at, or just book a discovery call for a one-on-one chat.

Picture of Adam Hunter

Adam Hunter has a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering, an MBA, and 35+ years of technical and programming experience, resulting in a broad mix of analytical, statistical, project-related and business skills. (Linkedin)