Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Likert Who?

It’s hard to escape them. The phone rings, typically as the family gathers round the dinner table; and then the query: “Can I have a few minutes of your time?” We all have strategies (some passive, some not so) for dealing with the ubiquity of telemarketing and its blood-brother, the telesurvey. Nicola’s personal favourite is to feign distress that, yes they could – but it’s usually her husband who answers all questions; and he’s not due to be released for some time. I try to stick a little closer to the facts (maybe she knows something that I don’t!). No, Mr. Adair doesn’t live here anymore (this is a true statement – as the phrasing goes). Or, in my more generous moments, I just acquiesce; as much fallout from having a possible future son in law who is one of those folks on the other end of the survey and has quite likely had all the abuse he can swallow for one day.

“On a scale of 1 to whatever, could you please rate the following statements? ‘1’ being ‘strongly agree’; ‘whatever’, being ‘I don’t ever want to hear another of your questions for as long as you may choose to live’.” “Sure, I guess.” “Are you married?” “Yes.” “No, sir; using the rating scale I described, please.” “OK, 1”. “If you answered ‘1’ to the previous question, could you please rate… ” And so it goes: a (painfully) long list of queries that produce (no doubt) a dog’s breakfast of irrelevant information that will be quantified, averaged, standard deviationed, and ultimately passed on to the company who hired this underpaid, abused individual to stick it out to the end… and then do it all again. Talk about Groundhog Day! Much as I hate to admit it, these litanies of meaningless inquiry do compel me, on those generous occasions when I agree to participate, to listen to the question and, God forbid, think about my answers.

Something approaching a high point in my week of mornings is Friday – the day the Globe and Mail includes, in their Review section, the entertaining, acerbic, droll, and frequently insightful review of the recently released movies. Time to fess up; I’m a movie nut – not just any movie but one that might steer me to the next good book on which one was based; or maybe just the next candidate for what Nicola charitably calls “treadmill fodder” (aka, something too violent, too macho, or just too inane to occupy us on a weekend evening – but suitable for David to wile away his time on the ‘mill’). Rick and Liam (two of my favourite ironists), after lauding or lacerating the video candidate (whichever is appropriate), will offer a ‘score’ as it were (somewhere between 0 and 4 stars), reflecting the global merit of the particular offering.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that ‘4’s’ are relatively hard to come by; equally (believe it or not, given the parade of mindless ‘mill fodder’ that seems to fill the big screen) ‘0’s’ don’t show up too terribly often either! Most ratings are in the 2 to 2 ½ range, indicating a product of interest, but with significant shortcomings, indulgences (gratuitous gore), irrelevancies, or just plain bad acting to make it a struggle on some level for our erudite judges to sit through – without engaging their finely honed senses of humour.

What binds these seemingly quite unrelated experiences are two elements: a) the use of some kind of mechanism for ‘scoring’ as it were; and b) the (somewhat unexpected) attention that must be paid to meaningfully ‘rate’ one’s response. As one who has, in one way or another, spent a large part of his working life in the realm of ‘ratings’ and the (sometimes fruitless) attempt to have people take this exercise sufficiently seriously to enable me to draw conclusions about their personality, intellect, pain levels, and career aspirations from pages of blackened-in bubbles on the response sheets of questionnaires, this resonated indeed. Years of being called upon to quantify the subjective, to supply a number to a definition, a writing sample, a partially recalled design, to rate a mood, or to score someone’s ‘global functioning’ (“please consider the following on a hypothetical continuum of …”) can’t help but endear one to the sheer simplicity and reductionist thinking embraced by a lovely, linear, Likert scale. The kind that’s anchored by a ‘strongly something’ at one end (often the equivalent of a ‘+2’) and a ‘strongly not something’ (‘-2’) at the other. Do I hear Ebel’s “two thumbs” echoing in the background?

Now I am not so naïve as to assume that everyone attends with rapt focus to a homily from beginning to end. But I have observed that sometimes my attention is captured; and sometimes, let’s just say, less so. Sometimes the Sunday morning efforts are an “English Patient”, or a “Schindler’s List”; and sometimes, let’s just say a “Death Race 2000”. And, as with any good screen play, script, or text, one looks for the requisite component pieces: the inclusion of timely scripture (a premise), the delivery (the acting), the integrity (does it wander, does it hang together), the climax (does it consolidate), the sidebars (the self-indulgences), and the resonance (does it touch, connect). And, sad to say, mere popularity, sentimentality, familiarity, as with the movies, sell tickets but may be, what shall we call them, ‘box-office successes’, but critical failures. (For fun, I’ve correlated – another psychologist’s ‘trick’ – dollars of ticket sales with the G & M’s ‘star’ scores. Not good.)

And so was born a little device, a context, a rating scale that, for me both fosters critical listening and invites a serious, considered evaluation of a weekly (hopefully) event that has as its structure and intent a pulling together of liturgy, church calendar, scripture, proffered guidance, spiritual stimulation, and reflection. How could we afford this less importance than the relentless “On a scale of … could you please rate your enjoyment of the themes explored in this week’s episode of Becoming Jessica or Being Veronica or . . ?”
David Howard

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