‘On a scale of 1 to 5, are you….’

Rensis Likert and the science of society

How do people feel about the president? The new laundry detergent? The state of the world?

Until Rensis Likert, it was hard to say.

As a graduate student in sociology in the 1920s, he developed a simple way to gauge public opinion on any topic. He gave participants a statement, then a choice of responses from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

It became known as the Likert (pronounced LICK-ert) Scale. Now as familiar as a traffic light, this form of asking and answering questions became the foundation of modern survey research — the study of what people, in aggregate, think and feel about the world.

That by itself was a significant contribution to sociology, social psychology, and economics. But Likert went on to foster the spread of survey research into every quarter of society. And for decades, he led the field from the center he founded at Michigan just after World War II — the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

From D.C. to A2

Smiling man, older, arms crossed, striped tie. Black & white.

Rensis Likert created the Likert Scale, which became the standard when conducting massive surveys. (Image courtesy of ISR.)

As a Michigan undergraduate, Likert started in engineering, then shifted to sociology and economics. Next, it was on to graduate school, first in theology, then in sociology, at Columbia.

His “Likert Scale” sparked attention among decision-makers seeking quality data. He honed his skills in the insurance industry before moving to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. During World War II, he led studies of public attitudes about war bond sales, price controls, and rationing. He conducted the first massive sample surveys, a technique that would spread worldwide, and he recruited a team of like-minded young social scientists.

After the war, Likert looked for an academic home. He found it back in Ann Arbor, where the chairs of sociology, economics, and psychology knew what he could do.

Likert brought along his associates, including Angus Campbell and Leslie Kish, pioneers and award-winning leaders in the field. In a small operation called the Survey Research Center, they turned from studying particular programs and policies to broad questions about individuals’ relationships with organizations and society.

“The university gave us a basement and small payments for teaching,” Kish recalled. “But the University of Michigan’s chief contributions were its name and blessing for us to start our own projects . . . This was Likert’s and our private enterprise. We all gambled with him.”

A nationwide laboratory

Three men examine a map. They are all wearing bow-ties, circa 1956. Black & white.

ISR social scientists Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Angus Campbell (left to right) review data from the National Elections Study in 1956. (Image courtesy of ISR.)

Likert believed society’s most pressing problems were born of the relationships between individuals and the social systems that defined them — families, workplaces, democratic polities. That’s the core tenet of social psychology, and he applied it to studying organizations.

He believed — and had the data to prove it — that humane managers running a cooperative workplace would be more productive, not to mention better to work for, than authoritarian, exploitative managers.

The Survey Research Center sprouted branches — the Center for Political Studies and the Research Center for Group Dynamics, at the start, with several more to follow. The units were consolidated in 1949 as the Institute for Social Research, a national laboratory for the study of human behavior.

From the start, Likert’s team turned conventional wisdom on its head.

Would Dewey defeat Truman?

Funky old house that served as ISR's original headquarters. Black & white.

ISR offices were located in the West Hospital building from 1950-62. (Image courtesy of ISR.)

In 1948, for example, Campbell and ISR founder Robert Kahn created a pilot survey of Americans’ opinions about international affairs. By chance, they conducted the survey during the national presidential campaign between President Harry Truman and his Republican opponent, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. So, they tossed in a couple of questions about respondents’ presidential preferences.

Every prominent pollster predicted Dewey would win in a landslide. But when Campbell and Kahn analyzed their results, they envisioned a very tight race, with undecided voters leaning toward Truman.

When Truman won and word of the ISR survey got around, social scientists realized that voters were ripe for much closer examination.

In 1966, the ISR staff moved into a striking modernist home on Thompson Street. By then, the researchers’ surveys were providing the factual bedrock for decisions happening everywhere, from the CEO’s suite to the halls of Congress.

One significant survey was the National Election Study, conceived in the wake of the 1948 findings. In another surprise, Campbell and Warren Miller (who would become ISR’s principal investigator of the Michigan Election Studies) soon showed that for most Americans, social and psychological factors influenced their vote at least as much as well-informed calculations.

Another recurring outreach was the monthly Survey of Consumer Attitudes, a keenly watched report that measures Americans’ confidence in the economy. It remains one of the institute’s most popular offerings.

‘Why do Black people do so well?’

Smiling African American scholar sits at table with arms folded, thoughtful.

James Jackson was the first ISR researcher to rethink surveys of African Americans. (Image courtesy of ISR.)

ISR’s surveys broadened their reach when James Jackson, born in Detroit and raised in suburban Inkster, noted that few social scientists surveyed enough Black Americans to draw conclusions about them as a group. In 1980, he became the first to say African-Americans should be studied in their own right, not just in comparison to whites.

Jackson’s surveys included such questions as: “How often are there problems with muggings, burglaries, assaults, or anything else like that around here?” and “How often do people in your church or place of worship help you out?”

Earlier surveys addressed Blacks as a homogenous population. Jackson revealed layers of complexity. He once reflected that most surveys start by asking: “What’s wrong with Black people?” He asked instead: “Given the structural impediments that they face, why do Black people do so well?”

Jackson’s work was a harbinger of ISR’s expanding curiosity. The enormous variety and depth of its inquiries in the 21st century is evident in this handful of the myriad questions posed by its investigators:

  • Why do poor health and poverty persist across generations?
  • How did COVID-19 affect the well-being of children and families in various types of neighborhoods?
  • How do we know if an election’s results are legitimate or fraudulent?
  • How do genes and lifestyle interact to influence heart disease?
  • Does mass media trigger aggression?
  • What is the impact of a liberal arts education after students leave college?

Sources included Anne Frantilla, Social Science in the Public Interest: A Fiftieth-Year History of the Institute for Social Research (1998); Leslie Kish, “Resis Likert Social Scientist and Entrepreneur,” Choices (1990); Stanley E. Seashore and Donald Katz, “Rensis Likert (1903-1981),” American Psychologist (July 1982); “James Jackson, Who Changed the Study of Black America, Dies at 76,” New York Times, 9/11/2020. Lead image: In a famous Associated Press photo, President Harry Truman celebrates his presidential victory over opponent Thomas E. Dewey. (Wikipedia.)


  1. Tevah Platt

    Great history, thank you! Mike Traugott of the Center for Political Studies emailed me this morning to point out a small erratum… Leslie Kish was a pioneering statistician and survey methodologist, but not a social psychologist. For more, you can read his obituary below, and you can find a named bench in his memory at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.



    • Deborah Holdship

      My mistake, not Tobin’s — Ed.


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