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

As psychologists, it is our profession and duty to study the human mind and the areas surrounding it. One area in particular however is the study of human behaviour. Even since the origins of behavioural psychology, (Skinner, Pavlov, Watson and Raynor to name a few) psychologists have set out to find the causes of human behaviour. Why are we the way we are? What are the causes of both simple and complex emotions such as anger, or empathy, and ultimately reducing every behaviour to its fundamental core. Now that’s all well and good, but I have a huge bone to pick with this. It comes in the form of constructs.

Now these are a huge part in behavioural psychology. They represent ideas such as emotions that cannot be physically measured, so that they become measurable. That in itself is a ridiculous contradiction. I’m not saying that things such as emotions don’t exist, but if something isn’t physically there and is simply based off interpretation one way or another, then surely there are no accurate means of measurement? Sure things such as inter-rater reliability can be used, but at the end of the day when there are no universal standards of emotion, then how can they be truly measured? How do you define if someone is upset? Is it whether they seem to be a little down, not talk as much, or does a person have to be at the point of crying before everyone can agree that there upset? Again more problems arise from this; What if the person is hypersensitive, the severity of whatever they may be upset over, and every single individual has their own coping strategies and ways of dealing with things.

I guess the whole point of this little rant is that there are far too many different extraneous variables to even begin to consider to accurately measure emotion, and since it is simply a construct, how can it be measured? I could have been even more obscure from the start of this and simply stated that psychologists cannot measure how many dinosaurs walked the earth, but I’ll chose not to be as pedantic.  Psychologists will always try their best to understand and measure human behaviour, but at the end of the day there’s only one person who can tell you how you’re feeling and why you are the way you are, and that’s you.


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

  1. The fact that we cannot measure something that we cannot see such as a hypothetical construct is to a certain degree correct. Until recently and indeed today we rely heavily on measures such as self-report or behavioral to tap into the constructs which we can never truly be certain that it is a valid measure. I believe the increasing use of physiological methods of assessing constructs and the advent of neuroscience reduces but does not eradicate this threat to validating measures of constructs. Physiological measurements are unbiased as they are automatic and there are often many alterations on one’s body functions as a result of a changed construct which can be measured. Stress, a construct can be very accurately measured by placing someone in a stressful situation and recording physiological changes such as changes in blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol levels (Kotylar et al., 1999) when exposed to a stressful event. These results will not just show reliability of a measure but also concurrent validity. Neuroscience has also reduced this nervousness about hypothetical constructs as we can now see and therefore measure processes that occur in the brain when we experience such things as emotion (Ohira, 2009)

    Kotlyar, M., Brauer, L.H., al’Absi, M., Adson, D.E., Robiner, W., Thuras, P., Harris, J., Finocchi, M.E., Bronars, C.A., Candell, S., & Hatsukami, D.K. (2006). Effect if bupropion on physiological measures of stress in smokers during nicotine withdrawal. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behaviour, 83(3), 370-379.
    Ohira, H. (2009). Editorial for the special issue: neuroscience on emotion. Psychologia: An international Journal of Psychological Science, 52(2), 91-92.

  2. Heres a good article on the governments happiness survey they did a while back-
    Can happiness be measured? Should it? Sometimes i wonder why psychologists even attempt to measure abstract ideas like emotions, leave them be until we develop better technology and measurement techniques, until then all we can do is guess anyway. Great blog tho, summed up my thoughts exactly

  3. Hello, really liked you blog 🙂 I agree with you that it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) for Psychologists to measure constructs such as emotions love. However, I would like to show you this article ( which explains really nicely how important it is for psychologists to TRY to understand emotions. Emotions play a huge part in our lives and, more importantly for us psychologists, in our behaviour. By trying to understanding emotions such as aggression we might be able to find methods to reduce violence. But as you rightly said, it is a very tricky area full of difficulties but I don’t think that should stop us from trying. Look forward to your next blog!

  4. your blog is really good, you could add to your argument by writing about friendships and relationships. with these you cant measure the emotional difference between the two. nor can you measure the emotional involvement from either people in a friendship or a relationship.

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  6. Great blog, indeed we cannot measure emotions, or even friendship, not really. We can only get self-reports or likert scales, but I also agree with psuc3d in that we need to try to understand emotions, and indeed the actions which accompany certain emotional states, and one way we could investigate ‘feelings’ is through the use of fMRI scanners.

    This interesting research from Rutgers University in New Jersey shows what happens in the brain during orgasm (or at least in a female)
    there is also a youtube video of the same thing

    This could be the future of understanding emotion. Perhaps emotion, no matter how much of a personal and subjective experience really is just an internal reaction to chemical imbalances in the brain? Or is emotion universal?

  7. Bertrand’s study on self-subjectivity actually disagrees with the viewpoint of “there’s only one person who can tell you how you’re feeling and why you are the way you are, and that’s you” (2001 – she claims that being ourselves, we are prone to either overestimate or underestimate our selves in comparison to others. Shrougner, Sidney & Thomas (2002 – believe that an objective perspective of the self is a much more realistic measure, so as for psychologists, psychiatrists and everyday people, apparently, there is no better judge of you than someone else!

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  10. Studying and measuring emotion is extremely difficult, I agree with that. Emotions are hard to define, and therefore how can we research what we can’t define? But as you pointed out, even though emotions are hard to define they are still apparent and make up a massive part of the human mind, human development and human behaviour. So, I still think these things should be researched. Self report questionnaires, qualitative interviews and measures of physiological state can also measure emotion. And although they may not be entirely reliable and many of the research gained from them can depended on the researcher’s perceptions, it’s a start! Emotions are so complex and fascinating, and we will probably never understand them fully but I think it would be a shame to disregard researching them on the grounds that it’s slightly more difficult then researching other areas of psychology.

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