Levels of Measurement


Learning Objectives

  1. Define and distinguish among nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio scales
  2. Identify a scale type
  3. Discuss the type of scale used in psychological measurement
  4. Give examples of errors that can be made by failing to understand the proper use of measurement scales

Types of Scales

Nominal scales

When measuring using a nominal scale, one simply names or categorizes responses. Gender, handedness, favorite color, and religion are examples of variables measured on a nominal scale. The essential point about nominal scales is that they do not imply any ordering among the responses. For example, when classifying people according to their favorite color, there is no sense in which green is placed "ahead of" blue. Responses are merely categorized. Nominal scales embody the lowest level of measurement.

Ordinal scales

A researcher wishing to measure consumers' satisfaction with their microwave ovens might ask them to specify their feelings as either "very dissatisfied," "somewhat dissatisfied," "somewhat satisfied," or "very satisfied." The items in this scale are ordered, ranging from least to most satisfied. This is what distinguishes ordinal from nominal scales. Whereas nominal scales don't allow comparisons in the degree to which two subjects possess the dependent variable, just this kind of comparison is possible with ordinal scales.

On the other hand, ordinal scales fail to capture important information that will be present in the other scales we examine. In particular, the difference between two levels of an ordinal scale cannot be assumed to be the same as the difference between two other levels.

Interval scales

Interval scales are numerical scales in which intervals have the same interpretation throughout. As an example, consider the Fahrenheit scale of temperature. The difference between 30 degrees and 40 degrees represents the same temperature difference as the difference between 80 degrees and 90 degrees. This is because each 10 degree interval has the same physical meaning (in terms of the kinetic energy of molecules).

Interval scales are not perfect, however. In particular, they do not have a true zero point even if one of the scaled values happens to carry the name "zero." The Fahrenheit scale illustrates the issue. Zero degrees Fahrenheit does not represent the complete absence of temperature (the absence of any molecular kinetic energy).

Ratio scales

The ratio scale of measurement is the most informative scale. It is an interval scale with the additional property that its zero position indicates the absence of the quantity being measured. You can think of a ratio scale as the three earlier scales rolled up in one. Like a nominal scale, it provides a name or category for each object (the numbers serve as labels). Like an ordinal scale, the objects are ordered (in terms of the ordering of the numbers). Like an interval scale, the same difference at two places on the scale has the same meaning. And in addition, the same ratio at two places on the scale also carries the same meaning.

What level of measurement is used for psychological variables?

Rating scales are used frequently in psychological research. For example, experimental subjects may be asked to rate their level of pain, how much they like a consumer product, their attitudes about capital punishment, their confidence in an answer to a test question. Typically these ratings are made on a 5-point or a 7-point scale. These scales are ordinal scales since there is no assurance that a given difference represents the same thing across the range of the scale. For example, there is no way to be sure that a treatment that reduces pain from a rated pain level of 3 to a rated pain level of 2 represents the same level of relief as a treatment that reduces pain from a rated pain level of 7 to a rated pain level of 6.

In memory experiments, the dependent variable is often the number of items correctly recalled. What scale of measurement is this? You could reasonably argue that it is a ratio scale. First, there is a true zero point; some subjects may get no items correct at all. Moreover, a difference of one represents a difference of one item recalled across the entire scale. It is certainly valid to say that someone who recalled 12 items recalled twice as many items as someone who recalled only 6 items.

But number-of-items recalled is a more complicated case than it appears at first. Consider the following example in which subjects are asked to remember as many items as possible from a list of 10. Assume that (a) there are 5 easy items and 5 difficult items, (b) half of the subjects are able to recall all the easy items and different numbers of difficult items while (c) the other half of the subjects are unable to recall any of the difficult items and remember different numbers of easy items. Some sample data are shown below.

Subject Easy Items Difficult Items Score
A 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
B 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3
C 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 7
D 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 8

Let's compare (i) the difference between Subject A's score of 2 and Subject B's score of 3 and (ii) the difference between Subject C's score of 7 and Subject D's score of 8. The former difference is a difference of one easy item; the latter difference is a difference of one difficult item. Do these two differences signify the same difference in memory performance? We are inclined to respond No to this question since only a little more memory may be needed to retain the additional easy item whereas a lot more memory may be needed to retain the additional hard item. The general point is that it is often inappropriate to consider psychological measurements scales as either interval or ratio.

Consequences of level of measurement

Why are we so interested in the type of scale that measures a dependent variable? The crux of the matter is the relationship between the variable's level of measurement and the statistics that can be meaningfully computed with that variable. For example, it is meaningless to compute the mean of numbers measured on a nominal scale.

Does it make sense to compute the mean of numbers measured on an ordinal scale? The prevailing (but by no means unanimous) opinion of statisticians is that for almost all practical situations, the mean of an ordinally-measured variable is a meaningful statistic. However, as you will see in the simulation shown in the next section, there are extreme situations in which computing the mean of an ordinally-measured variable can be very misleading.