Paired Comparison Analysis

Working out Relative Importances

Get your most important options to stand out from the crowd.

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.

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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, and write down the letter of the most important option in the cell. 
  2. 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 (21)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Nina_B,
    Welcome to the Club and I am pleased to hear that you found this exercise interesting. Knowing clearly what your values are and what priority order they take can help you in so many different ways in your life. It is really fantastic that you have gained more insights that will make a difference in the future!

    I hope we will see you around the Club and in the Forums where members ask questions and share ideas. We learn so much from these exchanges and we are always happy to help. Let me know if there is anything I can help with.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Nina_B wrote
    This was an interesting exercise. I used it to help me prioritise my values and was quite surprised to discover that some things I initially considered to be more important than others were actually less important to me when I really thought about it. I will definitely re visit this exercise in the future.
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi marketingnorm,
    It is great to hear that you are taking such a methodical approach for your career direction. Using the Paired Comparison Analysis is certainly a good approach.

    I do wonder whether you can reduce either the number of career paths (10) or factors (25) to make it a bit easier. Can you group together any of the career paths or factors or are they all distinct enough that you need to keep them separate?

    I would also consider which priority order are the factors. You might want to consider ... if you could only have ONE of the factors met in a job, which one would it be? Now, with that one factor being met, if you could have one more factor met, which one would it be? Keep on repeating those questions until you have ranked all the factors in priority order before looking at them with the career paths in mind.

    Hope that helps you move forward and make a decision as to your next career move.

    If you want additional support, why not join the Career Club and post questions up on in the Career Cafe to receive support, input and ideas for other members to help you along your journey.

    Mind Tools Team
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