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

As we are all aware human behaviour and human interaction is an umbrella term and covers a huge range of things that can be measured. Psychologists have measured reaction time, perception, personality disorders, effect of facial impressions, intellectual disabilities, i could go on but you get the point. In this blog, i’m going to discuss whether there is actually anything psychologists can not actually measure and the reasons behind it.

Now, i’m going to drop a name that you’ll all know, Sigmund Freud. I understand that his theories are dated and controversial but i am a fan i must be honest. Despite what people say about his work am i do agree with what people say, he was a pioneer in the field of psychology and i respect that. However, i have one issue with Freud. The idea of the mind. The mind is an abstract concept, it doesn’t physically exist in the brain and it can’t be displayed in an observable way so that researchers can report and measures its effect. However we use the term so regularly that sometimes it might as well exist :).

So, staying on the same lines of abstract concepts, I’m going to move to something a bit more controversial, the idea of love. Some of you may have fallen in love or may be in love right now, films are based solely around the idea and it can affect a person’s entire life, but can it be measured? Well, i would be the biggest hypocrite in the world if i said you could. It is after all an abstract concept, it doesn’t physically exist just like the mind. However, i would argue that you could observe, not love itself, but the effects that it can have on a individual. We are all aware of how people can devote their life to one person just through the idea of love: to buy them gifts, commit their time, follow them to the ends of the earth and all that. What’s more, i think you could also measure the effect that a”broken heart” can have on someone. People have been known to fall into an UBER state of depression when they’ve had their heart broken. They may not leave the house, display little energy in their day to day life or just dig into a giant tub of Ben a Jerry’s.

The range of things that a psychologist can measure is frankly incredible. I think we can safely assume that, in regards to human behaviour, there is a lot more that can be measured than stuff that can’t. But one thing that i do not believe can be measured, especially by today’s standards, is the mind. More than anything else is the fact that it cannot be observed by researchers. You can’t physically view its affects. At least with love, although an abstract concept, i do believe it is possible to extract some useful observations from its affect on a individual’s behaviour.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by psuca7 on February 19, 2012 at 11:51 am

    I think it’s difficult to say that you can measure love, as it is a mix of emotions that can be felt differently for different people. It is surely impossible to define love into a measurable variable, as people display all different kinds of emotions and body language that may not be typical of ‘someone in love’. There is no universal characteristic that we can look for to see whether someone is in love or not, as it is just a state of mind. Can we ever really know if we are in love or not?
    Well, Aron (2005) took brain scans of newly in-love couples and found that – when presented with images of their other half – a complex system in the brain is activated that is essentially the same thing that happens when you take cocaine. Studies into dopamine amount measurements have been taken and it has been found that those experiencing so-called love have higher levels of dopamine in their bodies, particularly when viewing pictures of their partners.

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  2. I always threw in measures of emotion in the same pit as the unconscious mind. However I think you are right that we can measure really subjective and abstract things such as love, depression or just plain old happy and sad. Not only can we begin to create very strict measurements using neuroimaging techniques (Bandettini, 2006) – which will measure the same areas and degrees of neurone activation in the same way in everyone (Ohira, 2009) but also using ye olde scales and questions as usual. For example whilst everyone might have some degree of error on an IQ test, they can produce a reliable output. Similarly we use things like Beck’s scale on depression to get a standard score. It may be the case that these scales are not 100% accurate at measuring the concept. However you could argue that they are good measurements as they can give reliable and fairly accurate scores on a very internal thought process. So with modern and typical psychological methods we can get reliable data on really obscure ideas! Scientists can even hear the internal voice of your head!! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16811042 So maybe there is very, very little we cannot measure in a reliable and valid way?

    http://www.pnas.org/content/103/10/3863.short Bandetti 2006

    Ohira, H. (2009). Editorial for the special issue: neuroscience on emotion. Psychologia: An international Journal of Psychological Science, 52(2), 91-92.

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  3. I’m not sure that psychologists can measure everything (the charge on an electron might be a bit tricky, unless they were particle physicists in a former life :P) but I do think that almost everything humans do could be measured by psychologists so long as they had the right construct and operational definition.
    On the subject of love, this short film (http://thehairpin.com/2012/02/love-and-the-love-competition) followed an experiment where participants had 5 minutes in an MRI machine to focus on love or a loved one while researchers measured the level activity in brain regions associated with love. We might expect that studying something like love might take away some of the magic associated with it but all of these participants seemed to be deeply moved by the entire experience. I’m not usually one to expound on the “beauty of science” etc,but this definitely did it for me.

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  4. Posted by fidelidogho on February 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    i think its only a matter of time before we know how things seem unique to each other and how we evolve. statistics is a growing science and we know its vitual interacts with us social animals and everyting we do in life.i agree with the fact that anytin could be mesured by statistics.

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  5. Great blog which I thought was very thought provoking.
    I personally believe that as psychologists we can measure anything to an extent. There are always tests being created to allow for a measurement of certain characteristics which are either objective or subjective. As psychologists we need to be inventive creating new tests for certain measurements and inevitably making mistakes as we try to learn as much as possible. I think this is particularly relevant when we consider how other scientific disciplines evolve and deal with information. A great example of this is Physics and the Higgs boson particle which may or may not exist. Physicians are unable to see the atomic particles in the large Hardron collider but you can observer the effects of bashing to particles together. Their observations are then what they base their theories on and these are used by engineers and researchers around the world. This is an example of how even if we cannot see what we are measuring we can measure its effects on the world. In more psychology related studies such as measuring personality there have been many attempts at creating tests such as the Rorschach personality test which has been used in many studies Beck, Samuel J. (1944). The question here however, is what is personality? and are we actually measuring it with these tests. I believe that we are able to measure everything to an extent and as time goes on we are able to create more valid and reliable test. An example of this is using fMRI scanning to measure parts of the brain affected by love Helen Fisher, Arthur Aron, Lucy L. Brown (2005). Therefore in conclusion I believe we can measure almost everything even if we cannot see it which is a crazy but interesting idea.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higgs_boson
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cne.20772/full
    http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2006-22622-000/

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  6. I found you blog really interesting and you are one of the few people i have found that agree that, though Freud’s theories controversial, they are still important in psychology. Your point about measuring the effect of love or “broken hearts” on an individual rather than love itself is an interesting one, and i agree of course that you can’t measure love itself. There may be problems with measuring the effects though as many people will react in different ways, but other than that i agree that there is more to gain from measuring effects of love than even attempting to measure love itself in whatever way

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  7. I agree with you that abstract concepts can be measured, though it may be incredibly difficult. Ultimately we are subject to our biology so all human abstract concepts must spring forth from that, surely even environmental effects on our biology must be measurable. What I mainly wanted to add to your blog regards Freud. It is typical that we thank him for sparking an interest in psychology and nothing else but I think we have to thank him for the discovery of defence mechanisms also. Arguably a reliably demonstrable effect of human behaviour. Michael Britt goes into it in his excellent podcasts if you want a listen: http://www.thepsychfiles.com/2007/02/episode-5-in-defense-of-defense-mechanisms/

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  8. As you’ve said, love is an internal construct, which can’t be directly measured.
    The only methods of investigating it are self-report of the ‘afflicted’ (well, they do call it love-struck for a reason…) individual (and we all know how subject to bias that can be) or by using operational definitions (using external observable behaviours, be they biological/physical or social etc. as a way of measuring the effect).
    Recent studies of love by New York scientists using MRIs found that neurologically, new lovebirds’ brains are flooded with dopamine in company of their partner -which has the same impact as cocaine…and chocolate (Aron, 2005). It makes the song Your Love is a Drug (Kesha) suddenly MUCH easier to understand…
    (sample lyrics:
    Maybe I need some rehab,
    Or maybe just need some sleep
    I’ve got a sick obsession,
    I’m seeing it in my dreams)
    These levels of dopamine in the initial stages of love make sense when you consider that people who are in love behave euphorically, have way too much energy, have difficulty sleeping, and can be anxious and obsessive about spending time with their new partner (see: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/08/health/la-he-love8-2010feb08).
    With new technology like MRI and fMRI, internal constructs such as love may become more and more accurately operationally defined -and understood.

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