Paired Comparison Analysis

Working out Relative Importances

Paired Comparison Analysis

Compare two options at a time.

© iStockphoto/eli_asenova

When you're choosing between many different options, how do you decide on the best way forward?

This is especially challenging if your choices are quite different from one another, if decision criteria are subjective, or if you don't have objective data to use for your decision.

Paired Comparison Analysis helps you to work out the relative importance of a number of different options – the classical case of "comparing apples with oranges."

In this article, we'll explore how you can use Paired Comparison Analysis to make decisions.

About the Tool

Paired Comparison Analysis (also known as Pairwise Comparison) helps you work out the importance of a number of options relative to one another.

This makes it easy to choose the most important problem to solve, or to pick the solution that will be most effective. It also helps you set priorities where there are conflicting demands on your resources.

The tool is particularly useful when you don't have objective data to use to make your decision. It's also an ideal tool to use to compare different, subjective options, for example, where you need to decide the relative importance of qualifications, skills, experience, and teamworking ability when hiring people for a new role.

Decisions like these are often much harder to make than, for example, comparing three similar IT systems, where Decision Matrix Analysis   or some form of financial analysis   can help you decide.

How to Use the Tool

To use the technique, download our free worksheet, and then follow these six steps:

  1. Make a list of all of the options that you want to compare. Assign each option a letter (A, B, C, D, and so on) and note this down.
  2. Mark your options as both the row and column headings on the worksheet. This is so that you can compare options with one-another.


On the table, the cells where you will compare an option with itself are blocked out. The cells on the table where you would be duplicating a comparison are also blocked out. This ensures that you make each comparison only once.

  1. Within each of the blank cells, compare the option in the row with the option in the column. Decide which of the two options is most important.
  2. Write down the letter of the most important option in the cell. Then, score the difference in importance between the options, running from zero (no difference/same importance) to, say, three (major difference/one much more important than the other.)
  3. Finally, consolidate the results by adding up the values for each of the options. You may want to convert these values into a percentage of the total score.
  4. Use your common sense, and manually adjust the results if necessary.


For example, a philanthropist is choosing between several different nonprofit organizations that are asking for funding. To maximize impact, she only wants to contribute to a few of these, and she has the following options:

  • An overseas development project.
  • A local educational project.
  • A bequest for her university.
  • Disaster relief.

First, she draws up the Paired Comparison Analysis table in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Example Paired Comparison Analysis Table (not filled in):

  A: Overseas Development B: Local Educational C: University D: Disaster Relief
A: Overseas Development        
B: Local Educational        
C: University        
D: Disaster

Then she compares options, writes down the letter of the most important option, and scores their difference in importance to her. Figure 2 illustrates this step of the process.

Figure 2 – Example Paired Comparison Analysis Table (filled in):

  A: Overseas Development B: Local Educational C: University D: Disaster Relief
A: Overseas Development   A, 2 C, 1 A, 1
B: Local Educational     C, 1 B, 1
C: University
    C, 2
D: Disaster

Finally, she adds up the A, B, C, and D values and converts each into a percentage of the total. These calculations yield the following totals:

  • A = 3 (37.5 percent).
  • B = 1 (12.5 percent).
  • C = 4 (50 percent).
  • D = 0.

Here, she decides to make a bequest to her university (C) and to allocate some funding to overseas development (A).

Key Points

Paired Comparison Analysis is useful for weighing up the relative importance of different options. It's particularly helpful where priorities aren't clear, where the options are completely different, where evaluation criteria are subjective, or where they're competing in importance.

The tool provides a framework for comparing each option against all others, and helps to show the difference in importance between factors.

Download Worksheet

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Comments (17)
  • SUDARSON wrote Over a month ago
    I want to understand the methodology for Manual Analysis of students career assessment tools. I would be highly obliged if you can guide & help me with an example in this regard in my email -Sudarson
  • imikh wrote Over a month ago
    More details:
    Total = A + B + C + D = 3 + 1 + 4 + 0 = 8
    (A/total) X 100 = (3/8)*100 = 37.5
  • Kushtrim wrote Over a month ago
    Hi , I have a questions.
    do you know how use Paired Comparison Analysis (in public services ) or everywhere else.
  • Hustler wrote Over a month ago
    Hi. Is there any mathematical equation to support this?
  • Samad wrote Over a month ago
    excuse me i have a question.what is different between paired comparison Analysis and AHP(analytic hierarchy process)?
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Colin, my opinion is we add the combined relative difference importances to achieve a holistic view. It is a measure of differential not similarity - it is still subjective...its an objective summation of subjective estimates! You can adapt the process with different weighting it just makes the analysis more complex.

    If A vs D is A and at a significance of 3 then yes changing the analysis will change the result. C is popular and A is more significant. ( visible in the comparison to D - B1, C2, A3 ) originally 'A' was just as significant as B and C was more significant , now that has changed.
  • Colin wrote Over a month ago
    Is there some explanation as to why you add relative importance numbers and why that is supposed to help?

    Pairwise comparison is useful for a rough ordering if we can assume transitivity, but the numbers used here seem to throw it off.

    Using the above example, if we change A vs. D to have a result of (A,3), then A has 5 points which puts it ahead of C. This would then contradict that C was explicitly selected as better than A!

  • Golden wrote Over a month ago
    Hey I want ask, I want use decision tools for my thesis, should I use this or AHP tools ?
  • imikh wrote Over a month ago
    More details:
    Total = A + B + C + D = 3 + 1 + 4 + 0 = 8
    (A/total) X 100 = (3/8)*100 = 37.5
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    You are oh so very welcome GB! It's great to hear from you. And I couldn't agree more with the idea that with the proper tools, we can accomplish so much and do it very efficiently! Glad to learn that paired comparison worked well for you.

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