The Case for the Semantic Differential in Organizational and Business Research

By Piotrowski, Chris; Guyette, Roger W., Jr. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Case for the Semantic Differential in Organizational and Business Research

Piotrowski, Chris, Guyette, Roger W., Jr., Journal of Instructional Psychology

Attitude measurement has been and continues to be a central component in the field of social psychology. The semantic differential technique has proven to be a well-respected measuring device of attitudes since the 1960s, particularly in the social sciences. Given the importance of attitudes in the business world with reference to preferences in consumer behavior, marketing and corporate behavior, it is surprising that the semantic differential has received scant attention from the academic business community. This paper highlights the attributes of the semantic differential for organizational and business research, and presents a case study (Bear Stearns Bailout) where this measurement technique was used.


Attitudes are a critical feature of the human experience and, thus, play an important role in both social research and practical applications. The study of attitudes had its nascent beginnings within the field of social psychology. Since many conceptual and theoretical frameworks in social psychology have been applied to the field of organizational behavior, it is surprising that the prominent attitude measurement device known as the semantic differential has been largely ignored in business research (Osgood et al., 1957). A review of the literature identified several studies that utilized the semantic differential in organizational or business contexts: Oliver (1974) was interested in the process of communicating among various accounting teams and expressions; several researchers studied attitudes toward auditors and auditing reports (Asebrook 1978; Graeme, 2006; Holt & Moiser, 1990). More recently, business school instructors reported on attitudes regarding the IRS, taxes, and the accounting profession (Guyette & Piotrowski, 2009; Piotrowski & Guyette, 2009).

The purpose of the current study is to illustrate the versatility and flexibility in using the semantic differential as a measurement instrument in business-related research. The recent 2008 near-collapse of the U.S. financial, credit, and investment system offered an opportunity to conduct hastily-designed research projects (see Gram, Ling, & Hermanson, 2008). The current authors assessed the attitudes of business students regarding the Bear Steams Bailout of March 2008.


Bear Stearns Bailout

In early January 2008, the Bear Stearns financial balance sheet appeared dismal--$20.2 billion in dead assets (or 155% of its equity)--, and was threatened with insolvency. On March 14, 2008 Bear Stearns collapsed and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York provided a $29 billion emergency loan and a merger-agreement with JPMorgan Chase followed in a stock swap worth $2 per share (less than 10% of Bear Steams' market value). The collapse of the financial sector has received much media attention (see Faber, 2009) and scholarly analysis over the past year (Collins & McMahon, 2008; Rosenberg, 2009).


The participants in this study were undergraduate and graduate students from 3 College of Business classes: tax, corporate tax, and MBA students. A total of 70 students completed the survey form. Participation was voluntary and the response sheet remained anonymous. The instructor covered the topic of 'government bailout of large financial corporations' prior to the administration of the survey form during regular, didactic class instruction.


Attitudes are subject to response bias, social desirability, and political persuasion. To overcome these concerns, we decided to use a unique semi-projective measurement approach for assessing views toward the Bear Stearns Bailout. A half century ago, Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum (1957) developed an ingenious and versatile method of measuring the connotative meaning of concepts, abstract ideas, and attitudes. The instrument is referred to as the "Semantic Differential' (SD) that combines an associational and scaling procedure.

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The Case for the Semantic Differential in Organizational and Business Research


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