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


Psychologists conduct experiments in order to gain an understanding of human behaviour and its possible causes (Gleitman, Gross and Reisberg, 2011). These experiments often involve measuring certain emotions or feelings, but it has been questioned whether such subjective matters can be measured accurately, if measureable at all (Mitroff, 1974).

Each individual has their own unique experiences and views on life, therefore their thoughts and behaviours cannot be measured accurately using the same scale. Complex variables that are not directly measureable, such as motivation and intelligence, provide problems for psychologists (MacCorguodale and Meehl, 1948). When conducting an experiment, the research must first remove all ambiguity from a construct so that it can be measured, this is known as operationalizing the variable (Gleitman, Gross and Reisberg, 2011). For example, define the concepts and deciding whether the construct should be assessed using quantitative or qualitative measures. If a construct can be operationalized, it can be measured. Therefore, if all aspects of behaviour can be defined, they can be measured by psychologists.

Some things, such as love, are very difficult to define and consequently difficult to measure (Hatfield and Spence, 1986). Even if a measure was made for psychologists to study love, the results can’t ever be 100% accurate. It is impossible to know how someone is truly feeling, sometimes people don’t even know what their feeling themselves. The unconscious mind for example is impossible to measure as researchers cannot get access to it. Although some psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud (1915), have attempted to measure such a complex area, no solid evidence has ever been found, and probably never will be.

Questionnaires are often used in psychology, some of which can contain a rating scale that measures things such as mood, motivation and personality (Mulder and Joyce, 1994). An issue with this method is that it is difficult to rate how happy or sad you are at a certain moment, and what one person might consider being very sad, another may not feel the same.

Ultimately it is possible for psychologists  to create a measurement scale for almost anything; however the accuracy and relativity of these measures are questionable. In the future perhaps new measurement methods may become available to psychologists, allowing them to measure even the most complex and abstract human behaviours.


Freud, S. (1915) The Unconscious, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 159-21

Gleitman, H., Gross, J., Reisberg, D. (2011) Prologue: What is Psychology?, Psychology Eighth Edition

Hatfield, E., Spencer, S. (1986) Measuring passionate love in intimate relationships, Journal of Adolescence, Vol 9 (4) Pages 383–410

MacCorguodale, K., Meehl, P.E. (1948) A distinction between hypothetical constructs and intervening variables, Psychological Review, Vol 55(2), 95-107. doi: 10.1037/h0056029

Mitroff, I. I. (1974) The subjective side of science, Scientists: Psychology

Mulder, R. T., Joyce, P. R. (1994) Relationships of the tridimensignal personality questionnaire to mood and personality measures for depressed patients, Psychological Reports, Vol 75, pp. 1315-1325. doi: 10.2466/pr0.1994.75.3.1315


One response »

  1. As you mentioned, subjective emotions are difficult to measure; due to the fact that emotions are interpreted differently from person to person and are easily manipulated by extraneous variables (Schwarz & Clore, 1983). Stress is an example of an emotional state that is difficult for researchers to measure directly (Horowitz, Wilner, & Alvarez, 1979). For example, Holmes and Rahe (1967) conducted research into the impact of stressful life events, such as moving house or death of a loved one, each of which was given a score based on how stressful the event was perceived to be by an independent sample of participants. However, each individual will cope with life stressors differently, meaning that the participants’ scores on Holmes and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) questionnaire may not accurately reflect how stressed they actually perceive themselves to be in reality. Consequently, the SRRS cannot always accurately determine how likely an individual is to develop a stress-related illness; which is what it was designed to do.

    Holmes, T.H., & Rahe, R.H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11(2). 213-218. doi: 10.1016/0022-3999(67)90010-4

    Horowitz, M., Wilner, N., & Alvarez, W. (1979). Impact of event scale: A measure of subjective stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 41(3), 209-218.

    Schwarz, N., & Clore, G.L. (1983). Mood, misattribution, and judgements of well-being: Informative and directive functions of affective states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 513-523. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.45.3.513

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