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The Radburn Scale

24 Randolph Terrace, the Likert home, in the top right, overlooks the R Park  (circa 1938).

By Stephen Taylor and Rick Hampson

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In the early evening of October 28th, 1932, 29-year-old Rensis Likert, originally from Wyoming, stepped out of his R Park home.   He had a panoramic, unimpeded view of the south park and the fields beyond.  In the distance, he might have spotted some tardy horse riders returning to the nearby stables. 
Heading north, he would have spotted the large lamp of the newly built footbridge that crossed a sunken Fair Lawn Avenue.  As he ascended this bridge into the canopy of the elm and plane trees that lined the street, a new Ford Model B might have safely roared by underneath.  To his right, he might have made out the lights of the old farmers’ Grange, which, five years earlier, was the largest building in the area.   To his left across the bridge and on the other side of an old Dutch house was his destination: the Radburn Plaza Building.

The Fair Lawn Avenue footbridge (left) and the Radburn Plaza Building (right).

The Plaza Building clock tower would have read just before eight o clock.  That’s when Likert was to give a talk in room 204.  His presentation, the first of six in a psychology series,  was about the control of emotions.   A group discussion would follow.  The Radburn audience paid one dollar to attend. That’s about 20 dollars in today’s money.  Likert might have begun his lecture with a question:

How much control do you have over your emotions?
  1               2              3                4                    5
 (none)                    (some)                            (complete).

If so, this would have been the first time anyone in his audience would have seen this kind of scale.  If present, even eminent economist and Radburn resident, Richard Ely, would be unfamiliar.  That’s because Likert was just developing this format.  The answers had corresponding numbers; there was a neutral middle option; and there was an odd number of questions.  The scale allowed attitudes to be measured on a numerical continuum.   He published research on this new method in 1932 and 1934.  The format soon became the basis for all manner of surveys, market research, opinion polls, and psychology questionnaires.  Today it is everywhere:  When you rate a frying pan on Amazon’s 5-star rating system (awful to excellent) you are using a Likert scale.

A section from The Bulletin from Oct 27, 1932, with details on Likert’s talk

Likert, his wife Jane, and their baby daughter, Elizabeth,  were the first occupants of 24 Randolph Terrace. They arrived the same year he completed his Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia University in 1932.   He taught at NYU until 1935, when he and his wife had another child, Patricia.  By 1937, the family moved out of 24 Randolph Terrace to Connecticut where Likert had taken a position as a research director for a life insurance company.

 24 Randolph Terrace (top left) in 1931 just before the Likerts bought the house.  

Rensis Likert would become a prominent innovator in statistics, market research, government, and business leadership.   In 1939 he became the first director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Program Surveys.  In 1941 he expanded this organization to be the first general survey organization.  He received the Medal of Freedom for his survey work during World War Two. He founded and then directed the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan until retiring in 1970.  There, he came up with an influential theory called participative management.  His research showed that businesses benefited from employee input and self-initiative.  He also served as President of the American Statistics Association.  

    Rensis Likert in his later years.

When he died in 1981 at the age of 78, he was remembered for his optimism and warmth.  Despite a long distinguished career,  his most remembered achievement is his scale.   What is not remembered in any article or obituary about Likert is the following:  As a young man, Likert lectured, started his family, his career, and even developed his famous scale in a vibrant and planned community called Radburn.

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