What You Should Know About the Labeling of Psychological Concepts
Psychological research you read about may not mean what you think it does.
Posted June 27, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Psychological constructs are human artifacts; their correspondence with reality should not be presumed.
- Catchy, clever names do not make a construct valid or useful.
- Familiar terms may not mean what they normally do when used to label psychological constructs.
There are some interesting things about psychological concepts. One is that they are often referred to as “constructs.” This appears intended to indicate that they are created by researchers, conveying a conservative stance in which their correspondence to reality should not be assumed.
Warning: Constructs Ahead May Not Be as Shiny (or Dark and Scary) as They Appear
Although “construct” may reflect a bit of modesty, many psychological constructs appear to have been named with branding in mind. Often their labels are catchy, clever, or otherwise attention-getting. Many suggest something highly desirable, such as "resilience," or undesirable, such as when "addiction" is appended to activities such as use of the Internet or pornography. These names have other interesting properties as well.
One is that they are familiar from everyday language. Psychologists occasionally have argued that this is problematic because it can lead to confusion about the construct's meaning. But this practice continues.
Even labels that are familiar from scientific use can be problematic. This is illustrated in an often-told account of the naming of the Type A behavior pattern. As the story goes, the investigators' original grant proposal referred to the display of competitiveness, impatience, anger, and hostility using the term “stress.” But they received feedback suggesting they should avoid that term because of disagreement as to what stress actually is. So they revised the application, referring to it as a personality construct. This time the feedback was that personality was an amorphous concept and its measurement subjective. Once again, they went back to the drawing board and came back using a neutral term (“Type A”) followed by a phrase referring to something concrete and observable (“behavior pattern”), which, one may argue, is the name of a personality attribute that influences a person's response to stress.
Truth in Advertising
Exceptions aside, familiar words are often used to label psychological constructs. In some cases, the everyday language imbues the construct with surplus meaning.
Take "hardiness," a tendency to experience life change as a challenge, to believe we can control what happens to us, and to feel committed rather than alienated. Is that what the word “hardiness” means to you? Probably not. In everyday language, it refers to the ability to endure difficult situations.
Hardiness was given that name because it was hypothesized to buffer against health-damaging effects of stressful events. So, hardiness is not, itself, an ability to endure difficult situations; it is a mindset that is a possible determinant of such an ability. I am not a fan of this approach to definitions, because it implicitly builds the existence of a relationship (i.e., linking challenge, control, and commitment to favorable stress outcomes) into the construct when this is something to be established by empirical research and not by definition.
Other psychological terms work the same way, implying favorable outcomes rather than referring to the attributes themselves that are hypothesized to bring about those outcomes. This creates a positive impression. It is like calling soap “clean,” a snack "tasty," or a cologne "sexy." That may be what you experience when you use the product, but it's not what's in the package. And, since it is not, it may not wind up being what you experience if you make the purchase.
An Optimist and a Pessimist Walk Into a Bar...But, Then, I Repeat Myself
Another consequence of labeling constructs with everyday words is possible confusion when scientific and everyday usages differ. One example is the personality trait known as dispositional optimism (Scheier et al., 2021). As in everyday language, it originally was defined as a generalized expectation that good things will happen. It is much studied in psychology and appears related to favorable health outcomes. But, get this: According to research, people can be high in both optimism and pessimism.
How can that be? The optimism scale contains six items. Three essentially ask in different ways whether you are optimistic, and three ask in different ways whether you are pessimistic. Originally, scores on the pessimism items were reversed and added to scores on the optimism items such that people could be described as falling somewhere along a single continuum from extremely pessimistic to extremely optimistic.
But the two sets of items are not inversely correlated, which would have indicated, as expected, that high optimism is the same as low pessimism and vice versa, as in ordinary language. Instead, they have been found to be substantially independent of one another. That means a person can be high (or low) in both optimism and pessimism.
At first, this may not seem possible. But it may suggest that people can be optimistic about some things—say, their career prospects, or the performance of their favorite sports team—while at the same time being pessimistic about other things, such as their health or the economy. Or maybe one can be pessimistic about the immediate future but optimistic about how things will turn out in the long run, or vice versa.
We do not yet know if either of those two explanations is accurate or what they mean for the assumption that dispositional optimism is a generalized expectation that cuts across different life domains and time. What we do know is that for predicting health outcomes, pessimism seems to be more important. It appears that high levels of pessimism are more strongly associated with negative health outcomes than low levels of optimism.
Another example: What is a hostile person like? You might expect them to be angry and aggressive. But as the term is used in psychology, this is not necessarily the case. The scale used to measure the trait of hostility in health research mainly assesses attitudes, defining hostile individuals as cynical and mistrustful (Contrada and Guyll, 2001). This may lead to anger and aggression, but not necessarily, and anger and aggression can come from places other than cynicism and mistrust.
Caveat Lector: Let the Reader Beware
The implication for consumers of psychological science is that we should be mindful of how construct names might shape our interpretation of research. Just as we should be wary of how commercial products are branded and advertised, we should not let construct names bias us in favor or against accepting the findings.
And we should be aware that even when neutral terms are used to designate constructs, their scientific meaning may differ from that associated with their everyday use. If the research you are reading about is important enough that you might make life changes based on the findings, be sure to become familiar with their operational definitions.
Operational definitions are the instruments used to measure constructs, if they are measured, such as personality traits, and the procedures used to create or modify the construct, if they are produced by experimental manipulations or interventions, such as methods for stress reduction or behavioral change.
We may find that the research wasn’t about what we thought. You most likely look at the descriptions when selecting from menu items at a restaurant, read product labels, and ask your doctor what is in the pills they prescribe. Do the same with scientific terms, whether or not they seem familiar, cool, or scary. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But calling a thing a rose is no guarantee of a pleasant aroma.
Scheier, M. F., Swanson, J. D., Barlow, M. A., Greenhouse, J. B., Wrosch, C., & Tindle, H. A. (2021). Optimism versus pessimism as predictors of physical health: A comprehensive reanalysis of dispositional optimism research. American Psychologist, 76(3), 529–548. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000666
Contrada, R. J., and *Guyll, M. (2001). On who gets sick and why: The role of personality, stress, and disease (pp. 59-81). In A. Baum, T. A. Revenson, & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of health psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.