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Psychological Measurement discussion

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Psychological Measurement discussion

Chapter 5
Psychological Measurement
Researchers Tara MacDonald and Alanna Martineau were interested in the effect of female college
students’ moods on their intentions to have unprotected sexual intercourse (MacDonald & Martineau,
2002). [1] In a carefully designed empirical study, they found that being in a negative mood increased
intentions to have unprotected sex—but only for students who were low in self-esteem. Although there are
many challenges involved in conducting a study like this, one of the primary ones is the measurement of
the relevant variables. In this study, the researchers needed to know whether each of their participants
had high or low self-esteem, which of course required measuring their self-esteem. They also needed to be
sure that their attempt to put people into a negative mood (by having them think negative thoughts) was
successful, which required measuring their moods. Finally, they needed to see whether self-esteem and
mood were related to participants’ intentions to have unprotected sexual intercourse, which required
measuring these intentions.
To students who are just getting started in psychological research, the challenge of measuring such
variables might seem insurmountable. Is it really possible to measure things as intangible as self-esteem,
mood, or an intention to do something? The answer is a resounding yes, and in this chapter we look
closely at the nature of the variables that psychologists study and how they can be measured. We also look
at some practical issues in psychological measurement.
Do You Feel You Are a Person of Worth?
The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1989) [2] is one of the most common measures of selfesteem and the one that MacDonald and Martineau used in their study. Participants respond to each of
the 10 items that follow with a rating on a 4-point scale: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly
Disagree. Score Items 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 by assigning 3 points for each Strongly Agree response, 2 for
each Agree, 1 for each Disagree, and 0 for each Strongly Disagree. Reverse the scoring for Items 3, 5, 8,
9, and 10 by assigning 0 points for each Strongly Agree, 1 point for each Agree, and so on. The overall
score is the total number of points.
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1. I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.
2. I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
3. All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure.
4. I am able to do things as well as most other people.
5. I feel I do not have much to be proud of.
6. I take a positive attitude toward myself.
7. On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
8. I wish I could have more respect for myself.
9. I certainly feel useless at times.
10. At times I think I am no good at all.
[1] MacDonald, T. K., & Martineau, A. M. (2002). Self-esteem, mood, and intentions to use condoms: When does
low self-esteem lead to risky health behaviors? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 299–306.
[2] Rosenberg, M. (1989). Society and the adolescent self-image (rev. ed.). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University
This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without
attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee.
Saylor URL:
5.1 Understanding Psychological Measurement
1. Define measurement and give several examples of measurement in psychology.
2. Explain what a psychological construct is and give several examples.
3. Distinguish conceptual from operational definitions, give examples of each, and create simple
operational definitions.
4. Distinguish the four levels of measurement, give examples of each, and explain why this distinction is
What Is Measurement?
Measurement is the assignment of scores to individuals so that the scores represent some characteristic
of the individuals. This very general definition is consistent with the kinds of measurement that everyone
is familiar with—for example, weighing oneself by stepping onto a bathroom scale, or checking the
internal temperature of a roasting turkey by inserting a meat thermometer. It is also consistent with
measurement throughout the sciences. In physics, for example, one might measure the potential energy of
an object in Earth’s gravitational field by finding its mass and height (which of course requires
measuring those variables) and then multiplying them together along with the gravitational acceleration
of Earth (9.8 m/s2). The result of this procedure is a score that represents the object’s potential energy.
Of course this general definition of measurement is consistent with measurement in psychology too.
(Psychological measurement is often referred to as psychometrics.) Imagine, for example, that a
cognitive psychologist wants to measure a person’s working memory capacity—his or her ability to hold in
mind and think about several pieces of information all at the same time. To do this, she might use a
backward digit span task, where she reads a list of two digits to the person and asks him or her to repeat
them in reverse order. She then repeats this several times, increasing the length of the list by one digit
each time, until the person makes an error. The length of the longest list for which the person responds
correctly is the score and represents his or her working memory capacity. Or imagine a clinical
psychologist who is interested in how depressed a person is. He administers the Beck Depression
Inventory, which is a 21-item self-report questionnaire in which the person rates the extent to which he or
This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative
Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without
attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee.
Saylor URL:
she has felt sad, lost energy, and experienced other symptoms of depression over the past 2 weeks. The
sum of these 21 ratings is the score and represents his or her current level of depression.
The important point here is that measurement does not require any particular instruments or procedures.
It does not require placing individuals or objects on bathroom scales, holding rulers up to them, or
inserting thermometers into them. What it does require is some systematic procedure for assigning scores
to individuals or objects so that those scores represent the characteristic of interest.
Psychological Constructs
Many variables studied by psychologists are straightforward and simple to measure. These include sex,
age, height, weight, and birth order. You can almost always tell whether someone is male or female just by
looking. You can ask people how old they are and be reasonably sure that they know and will tell you.
Although people might not know or want to tell you how much they weigh, you can have them step onto a
bathroom scale. Other variables studied by psychologists—perhaps the majority—are not so
straightforward or simple to measure. We cannot accurately assess people’s level of intelligence by looking
at them, and we certainly cannot put their self-esteem on a bathroom scale. These kinds of variables are
called constructs (pronounced CON-structs) and include personality traits (e.g., extroversion),
emotional states (e.g., fear), attitudes (e.g., toward taxes), and abilities (e.g., athleticism).
Psychological constructs cannot be observed directly. One reason is that they often
represent tendencies to think, feel, or act in certain ways. For example, to say that a particular college
student is highly extroverted (see Note 5.6 “The Big Five”) does not necessarily mean that she is behaving
in an extroverted way right now. In fact, she might be sitting quietly by herself, reading a book. Instead, it
means that she has a general tendency to behave in extroverted ways (talking, laughing, etc.) across a
variety of situations. Another reason psychological constructs cannot be observed directly is that they
often involve internal processes. Fear, for example, involves the activation of certain central and
peripheral nervous system structures, along with certain kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—none
of which is necessarily obvious to an outside observer. Notice also that neither extroversion nor fear
“reduces to” any particular thought, feeling, act, or physiological structure or process. Instead, each is a
kind of summary of a complex set of behaviors and internal processes.
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Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without
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The Big Five
The Big Five is a set of five broad dimensions that capture much of the variation in human personality.
Each of the Big Five can even be defined in terms of six more specific constructs called

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