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I gave an answer here on stats.stackexchange.com about how to analyse ordinal items, such as those on Likert type response scales (e.g., Strongly disagree to Strongly agree). Someone asked whether there were differences between countries and cultures in how respondents use such scales. I remember reading research about this many years ago. I can remember something about certain countries preferring extreme responses. Such differences naturally have implications for cross-cultural comparisons of levels of like life satisfaction, personality, and presumably any self-report measure that uses such response scales.


  • How does use of Likert type response scales vary across countries and cultures?
  • What explains any such differences?
  • How are differences in response style differentiated from differences in levels of the underlying construct?
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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Culture reference effects

Heine et al (2002) discuss how people in different cultures often answer questions relative to a reference group in their own culture. Thus, for example, if a culture is more collectivistic in general, measured cultural differences may less when people within a culture answer test items relative to their own cultural reference group.

To quote the abstract:

Social comparison theory maintains that people think about themselves compared with similar others. Those in one culture, then, compare themselves with different others and standards than do those in another culture, thus potentially confounding cross-cultural comparisons. A pilot study and Study 1 demonstrated the problematic nature of this reference-group effect: Whereas cultural experts agreed that East Asians are more collectivistic than North Americans, cross-cultural comparisons of trait and attitude measures failed to reveal such a pattern. Study 2 found that manipulating reference groups enhanced the expected cultural differences, and Study 3 revealed that people from different cultural backgrounds within the same country exhibited larger differences than did people from different countries. Crosscultural comparisons using subjective Likert scales are compromised because of different reference groups. Possible solutions are discussed.

Cultural differences in response tendencies

Lee et al (2002) summarised some of the empirical literature on cross-cultural differences in use of response scales:

Only a few researchers have addressed the issue of cultural differences in rating scales empiri- cally. Wong, Tam, Fung, and Wan (1993) found no difference in the way Chinese participants in Hong Kong responded to an odd versus an even number of response choices. Johnson (1981) found no difference in how readers of Horizons USA who resided in Great Britain, Italy, the Philippines, and Venezuela responded to bipolar scales. Stening and Everett (1984) found that Japanese managers responding in Japanese were more likely to choose the midpoint than were American or British managers responding in English. Chen, Lee, and Stevenson (1995) found the same effect for Japanese and to a lesser extent for Taiwanese in a sample comparing 11th-grade students in Japan, Taiwan, Canada, and, in the United States, Minneapolis. Iwata, Saito, and Roberts (1994) and Iwata, Roberts, and Kawa- kami (1995) reported that junior high school students in Japan and the United States responded similarly on negative items but that Japanese were less likely to endorse positive items.

When reviewing the literature on cross-cultural differences in response style Hamamura et al (2008) stated that:

Compared to North Americans of European-heritage, higher levels of extreme responding have been observed in African–Americans (Bachman & O’Malley, 1984) and Latino Americans (Hui & Triandis, 1989). In contrast, East Asians seem to show more moderacy than samples of European-heritage (Chen, Lee, & Stevenson, 1995)


  • Bachman, J. G., & O’Malley, P. M. (1984). Yea-saying, nay-saying, and going to extremes: Black–white differences in response styles. Public Opinion Quarterly, 48, 491–509.
  • Chen, C., Lee, S. Y., & Stevenson, H. W. (1995). Response style and cross-cultural comparisons of rating scales among East Asian and North American students. Psychological Science, 6, 170–175.
  • Hamamura, T., Heine, S.J. & Paulhus, D.L. (2008). Cultural differences in response styles: The role of dialectical thinking. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 932-942.
  • Heine, S.J. and Lehman, D.R. and Peng, K. and Greenholtz, J. (2002). What's wrong with cross-cultural comparisons of subjective Likert scales?: The reference-group effect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82, 903, PDF
  • Hui, C. H., & Triandis, H. C. (1989). Effects of culture and response format on extreme response style. Journal of CrossCultural Psychology, 20, 296–309.
  • Iwata, N., Roberts, C.R., & Kawakami, N. (1995). Japan–U.S. comparison of responses to depression scale items among adult workers. Psychiatry Research, 58, 237–245.
  • Iwata, N., Saito, K., & Roberts, R.E. (1994). Responses to a self-administered depression scale among younger adolescents in Japan. Psychiatry Research, 53, 275–287.
  • Johnson, J.D. (1981). Effects of the order of presentation of evaluative dimensions for bipolar scales in four societies. Journal of Social Psychology, 113, 21–27.
  • Lee, J.W. and Jones, P.S. and Mineyama, Y. and Zhang, X.E. (2002). Cultural differences in responses to a Likert scale. Research in nursing & health, 25, 295-306.
  • Stening, B.W., & Everett, J.E. (1984). Response styles in a cross-cultural managerial study. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 151–156.
  • Wong, C.S., Tam, K.C., Fung, M.Y., & Wan, K. (1993). Differences between odd and even number of response scale: Some empirical evidence. Chinese Journal of Psychology, 35, 75–86.
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