Is there anything that can’t be measured by psychologists?

All psychologists are encouraged to take a scientific approach to their methodology. This means they have to study objectively. Psychologists, therefore, cannot measure things that have to be studied subjectively. For example, it would be difficult to measure emotions such as sadness because they cannot be measured by someone else objectively and it would be easier to measure objective variables such as reaction time.

There is also another factor that has to be taken into consideration when psychologists are studying. This is whether the variable they are studying is overt or covert. An overt variable may be a reaction time score or a memory recall score. These are overt behaviours as they are observable and they can be objectively measured by the psychologists. A covert variable would be sadness, for example, something which cannot be objectively measured by the psychologist.

These problems, however, can be solved using different methods. Psychologists can measure anything as long as it can be operationalised. This is when a researcher removes the ambiguity and defines the variable being measured it so that it can be measured and expressed quantitatively or qualitatively. Using the example of emotion, if a psychologist were to measure stress, they could use physiological measures such as heart rate or blood pressure (Cohen, 1983). The quantitative data collected could be used as a measure of stress. Problems of covert and subjective behaviors can also be measured using self report studies given by the psychologist (Bradley & Lang, 1994). This makes it possible for psychologists to measure variables such as emotions.

Intelligence is also difficult to measure objectively. The Binet-Simon intelligence scale, developed by French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, was administered to children to evaluate their intelligence/performance at a given age. They are given test item, puzzles etc in which they can receive scores on. The total score /IQ score rates the subject’s cognitive ability as compared to the general population.

To conclude, it is difficult for psychologists to measure covert and subjective variables, such as emotion, however it can be made possible by operationalising variables and by using self report studies.


14 thoughts on “Is there anything that can’t be measured by psychologists?

  1. psuc97 says:

    Hey great blog 😉
    I agree that psychologists can operationalise hypothetical constructs, however I think the results from the tests to measure these hypothetical constructs should be applied with caution as they may not be accurate.
    For example IQ tests can have negative effects as some are racially biased. Serpell (2000) found that most IQ tests are found to be racially biased to favour those of middle class white ethnicity. This could has been known to cause problems amongst educational institutions as IQ tests are used to define children with mental retardation. There have been cases where children of African American background have been misdiagnosed with mental retardation due to a dependency on IQ tests (Kaplan Sacuzzo 2005). However Binet tried to reduce these problems by trying to highlight the fact that the results from IQ tests should not be used to label people and they should be used with other tests and assessments to determine individual’s abilities.

  2. psucc2 says:

    Although yes you are right that as psychologists we generally aim for the most ‘scientific’ approach to our methodology, I believe that there is also a place for the more subjective measures such as case studies, quasi experiments and observations. Usually qualitative, so therefore more subjective measures are used in the initial stages of an experiment in order to try and establish common themes in human behaviour. Although this is obviously not a scientific method, it does provide rich insightful data that allows theories to be developed and further studied with measures considered to be more objective such as the experimental method.
    Operational definitions do seem like efficient ways of measuring covert variables, as often these definitions are enriched by years of research from years gone by. For example everyone is generally aware of the symptoms which can be classed as ‘depressive’ in a person such as reactivity of mood,
    accompanied by increased/decreased sleep, loss of energy, increased appetite or weight, and
    sensitivity to interpersonal rejection (Quitkin et al., 1979). However, a vague list of symptoms that could apply to a number of both physical and psychological conditions doesn’t seem like the correct way to be describing someone’s emotional state. This idea seems to adhering to Western psychologists’ view of the ‘general population’ and that everyone is part of a particular trend Therefore, appearing to ignore the real complexity of human behaviour and individual differences when building operational definitions.
    An alternative idea to consider in relation to your question could be the role of neuroimaging such as fMRIS etc. and their real contributions to the field of psychology. As the field has progressed, the use of fMRIS has (metaphorically) exploded. The link from David Carey’s lecture notes seems to have disappeared, the information on his graph states that only 2 papers involved the use of fMRIS in 1992 but in 2007 this had risen to 2352. It’s hardly surprisingly really when psychology longs to be classified as a true science, so the quantitative and seemingly scientific method was wholly encouraged. The measure of blood flow, neural activity and localisation of function all seems very objective but there are some massive weaknesses with this method. Measuring the flow only established correlation and not causation between specific behaviours and areas of the brain, because the fMRI only tells us that a region is active during a process but there is no indication of the importance of such regions Interestingly however, research has found that people are much more likely to believe findings presented with neuroimaging examples compared to bar graphs. This supports the notion that part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves So basically, if it appears objective and scientific we are much more likely to accept the findings even if psychologists are admitting that such methods might not even be measuring brain functioning effectively. So, can anything truly be measured by psychologists?

  3. tommywiseau says:

    I think it does depend entirely on the question asked. Covert measurements for physiological changes such as FMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity. This helps to show which particular part of the brain is being the most active such as with studies into memory. Although it’s hard to determine certainty with covert measurements such as in “one UCLA study by researcher Marco Iacoboni, when swing voters were shown the words “Democrat,” “Republican” and “independent,” an area of their brain called the amygdala was activated, indicating feelings of anxiety and disgust. But the three terms also elicited activity in areas of the brain associated with reward, desire and connectedness.”
    Although it’s important to engage in self report measures to also help determine the state of mind of subjects to provide a comparison to results found.

  4. psuc1b says:

    Operationalising variables allows us to measure things that would not otherwise be observable, and this is probably one of the most useful tools in psychology as so many of the things we study are internal or covert behaviours. However, there have been times when I’ve wondered if we do this too freely; for example it often seems as though we use reaction time, eye-gaze or memory as captures for a huge variety of variables. This makes sense of course as they are relatively easy to measure and tightly related to mental processing but since they have all been applied to so many different experiments to measure so many different concepts one has to wonder how accurate they really are. Whether they are really capturing all these different phenomena or whether there is a hidden confounding variable we haven’t found out about yet, particularly when it comes to trying to measure complex emotional responses using a basic key-press reaction time test…..

  5. prewired4u says:

    I agree with you about that it is extremely easier and possibly more reliable to collect overt data in comparison to covert data. And there sure are relevant limitations to applying a self-reported measure in comparison to observing a certain behaviour. As has been pointed out by Cook and Campbell (1979), who found that participants have the tendency to report in a way that make them look better and by stating things that go along with what they believe the researcher expects to hear. But a more important bias in self-reporting was brought up by the cognitive psychologist Schachter (1999), who suggested the idea that the human memory is fallible and that past events can not be recalled accurately. Does this lead to the assumption that covert data collection is not an appropriate way for psychologists to measure people’s behaviour?
    That is far to believe. There are many advantages implied in using a self-reported style. On the other had, there are just as many disadvantages when using an observable measure approach, as pointed out in a study by Devina and Aral where Inaccurate reporting of condom use was recorded.
    Therefore, I agree with your conclusion that there are certainly some difficulties for psychologists to obtain overt data, but by operationalising variables it is possible to measure a lot of different things that may be interesting to psychology to understand.
    Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (1979). Quasi-experimentation: Design and analysis issues. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
    Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychology, 54, 182-203.

  6. re3ecca says:

    Interesting perspective, I was going to point out after the first paragraphs that we can create operational definitions to measure hypothetical constructs, but you beat me to it 🙂 So basically operations allow us to ‘measure’ things that are subjective (constructs like intelligence, as you mentioned) but I guess the better question is can we accurately measure these things?? We may think IQ tests are measuring intelligence but actually if there is low validity (which is hard to check since intellgence is a construct) then we are not measuring it. For example, there is evidence that practise effects can be seen in some IQ tests ( which implies there are validity issues as if the intelligence QUOTA is truly being measured then it should not change.
    This isn’t necessarily to say that we can’t attempt to measure everything, however I would argue that there are so many things that we have to measure by first turning them into constructs (which has its own issues, as maybe the constructs don’t actually exist) and then find a way to accurately measure the constructs (though how can we be sure there is high enough validity if the constructs don’t exist?) that there are bound to be things that as psychologists we can never measure – such as our reactions to the study of our minds – as how could we measure that without studying our own mind? .etc. So i agree with your conclusion that measurement can sometimes be made possible but i would add that I don’t think everything can be measured (accurately) at least because we are limited by the creation of constructs and the validity of such constructs, which in themselves can’t always be measured.

  7. psucb4 says:

    This was a clear and well written blog. I agree that it is much easier to measure objective variables than measuring subjectively. You used an example of reaction times which is a very good example of measuring objectively. This is due to the fact that the researchers can easily record the reaction times of each participant and the behaviours that occur. However, you have also mentioned that psychologists cannot measure everything objectively; the covert behaviours. I believe that the findings that come from this type of research are based on the researchers’ judgement. This can vary between researchers and therefore results will be inconsistent. Although psychologists overcome this problem by collecting data from self-report measures, I do not believe that this is 100% correct. If we consider questionnaires, how do we know that the participants are not lying? Individuals may want to impress the researchers. An example of this would be the study of Archer & Parker (1994). They researched into aggression in children; questionnaires were completed about how the children viewed their own aggression. The children could easily fake this data to try to fit into what they consider as the ‘social norms’. Therefore, while this is happening, are the results really reliable? If these are published to the public, it is very misleading.
    By considering all this, I agree with you that psychologists can measure covert behaviours but it is a difficult task for them. Although they are able to do this, it does not necessarily mean that the results/ findings are correct.

  8. Good answers in return of this issue with real arguments and telling everything about that.

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